Are you happy? Or are you constantly pursuing this elusive state? Is a life of sustained happiness possible, or realistically, does this idea seem pretty silly? Have you found that the things that would make you happy either aren’t available or aren’t appropriate? Thomas Jefferson risked his life to include “the pursuit of happiness” as one of your sacred and rights. Let’s explore “sacred happiness”, how it differs from normal happiness and how you can be happy during this pursuit.
Our forefathers believed that freedom of religion was a fundamental right of all people. They drew from the Bible and the role faith had played in their lives while writing the American Declaration of Independence. The Biblical stories of human happiness, both good and bad, helped them and can help you preserve your own “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Let’s consider two stories from the life of King David, “the man after God’s own heart”, and a little neurobiology to clarify the pursuit of happiness in your life.
David, Neurobiology and the Pursuit of Happiness
Young David was happy when, trusting God, he faced and defeated a giant named Goliath (See 1 Samuel 17:1-50). David's faith angered his brothers who saw it as a measure of his conceit. Initially, it was also seen as foolishness by the king, Saul. David was Jesse's youngest son, a lowly sheep herder for his father, a musician and a standard bearer for the King. He appeared an unlikely candidate to defeat another army’s best warrior, Goliath. Using logic developed by his faith, David recounted his life experiences fighting wild animals in the wilderness that would serve him in this fight. In the end, he was able to convince the king and approach the fight in a way God directed. David killed Goliath with one well-placed stone from his sling. People of faith were inspired and happy for David's victory while others who should have been happy became anxious, angry and lost their way.
Choosing to believe in God (Salvation) and then living by your faith (Sanctification) increases the organization, growth, and connection between your conscious and subconscious mind. Prayer and meditation increases the part of the brain (the parietal lobe) responsible for your “sense of self”. Belief in God changes this region’s purpose from “sense of self” to “sense of self as a child of God”. Ongoing prayer and meditation can significantly change and augment your perception of reality. This all leads to a deeper reach into your subconscious resources and more clarity of intent in any life situation. This leads to a consistent rise in nerve growth factors producing a consistent sense of confidence and happiness throughout life.
Later in life, King David slipped into an addictive form of happiness and felt happy when he took the opportunity to watch from his palace roof as a naked woman bathed nearby. Despite his many wives and concubines, he also enjoyed pursuing and having sex with this woman, Bathsheba, the wife of a man named Uriah who fought in David's army. In this addictive form of happiness, he enjoyed the relief he felt when he then convinced Uriah's officers to secretly have Uriah killed. It seems unbelievable that this could be the same David who slayed Goliath and wrote the 23rd Psalm.
David clearly felt intense guilt and shame when the prophet Nathan found out and confronted him. David “burned in anger” against the “rich man” in Nathan’s story about a rich man who takes and kills a poor man’s only little pet lamb. David's own addictive form of happiness became only too apparent when Nathan connected the dots for him, by showing him that he was acting just like that rich man by taking Uriah's beloved wife from him. (See 2 Samuel 12: 1-25)
Despite his fall into addiction, David’s faith became apparent again when, rather than answering with excuses, he immediately admitted, “I have sinned against the Lord.” He pleaded with God for his and Bathsheba's newly born child’s life and comforted her when the baby soon died. In a very real way David's response to his wrongdoing centered on God’s will restoring him and his family’s sustaining happiness despite some very negative consequences that resulted from David's sin.
David found this happiness by finding forgiveness and returning to a right relationship with God. In Psalm 32:1-2 David wrote about this experience: “Happy is the man whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Happy is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”
The Problem of "Double Mindedness"
Like David, we are all capable of such “double mindedness”. (See Romans 7:21-25 “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me”.) The connections between our conscious and subconscious mind contain circuits that run to our emotional centers (Amygdala) in a short and long loop. Normally, the short loop provides initial intuitive information while the long loop provides “the rest of the story”. For example, the short loop begins to prepare you for your spouse when you hear the garage door open. The long loop helps you respond to the question, “Where have you been all my life?!”, as they walk through the door.
In emergent situations, both circuits are less integrated with the richness of your subconscious resources and information provided by the short loops dominate. This allows for instant reactions that are otherwise not possible. For example, when running from a lion you may not notice its lovely mane! However, you will notice the danger more quickly and run faster than otherwise possible. With practice, integration improves even in an emergent situation. For example, as King Saul’s shield bearer, David was able to increase his mental integration, thus responsiveness during times of battle.
When stress is more chronic or when you are presented with a particularly unusual situation, this lack of integration becomes problematic. Inflammatory factors and insulin resistance increase, lowering nerve growth factors, further lessening your brain's resilience and integration. Use of short loop circuits carrying less information dominates, leading to excessive fear and anger on one hand and the need to self-sooth on the other.
This happens in everyone and the longer it goes on, dual-mindedness widens. On a good day, you may feel as spiritually minded as ever. However, anger and guilt lie unknowingly right outside of your consciousness as does your need to self-sooth. When suddenly, an addictive experience becomes available, the apparent “happiness” it offers has no connection to who you are or your relationship with God. It will likely feel surprising to you that both can exist!
In the end, a competition is set up and the addictive experiences tear at the neurological, psychological and spiritual integrity of your relationship with God. Guilt guides your direction, while shame provides little direction. Guilt is a matter of moral truth, e.g. “I am making a mistake.” Shame says you are making mistakes and are lost don’t know what to do, e.g. “Is there really a God and how could he ever have anything to do with someone like me?” Both can guide you back to his loving arms as in the poem, “Footprints in the Sand”:
One night I dreamed…
I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes of my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there was two sets of footprints.
Other times there was one set of footprints.
This bothered me because I noticed
That during the low period of my life,
When I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat,
I could see only one set of footprints.
So, I said to the Lord, “You promised me Lord,
That if I followed you, you would walk with me always.
But I have noticed that during the most trying period of my life
There has been only one set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?”
The Lord replied, “The times when you have seen
Only one set of footprints in the sand, is when I carried you.”
~ Mary Stevenson
Once you decide to believe, He will never leave you. When you feel guilt, he is guiding you. When you feel shame, he is accepting you and calling you back home. Building your practice to listen to His guidance creates sustained happiness you can count on. Creating personal practices that guard you against addictions reinforces your need for a savior and gives you a basis for consistent happiness.