At times, an unnecessary tension exists between psychological research and Christian faith, but Dr. Christopher Kaczor has now written a helpful book to clear a path through that forest of tension. In “The Gospel of Happiness,” he highlights the many ways that positive psychological research agrees with practices of the faith, yet he manages to keep his distance and not blur any important distinctions, such as to claim that any of this research “proves” Christian doctrine, or make any unkeepable promises such as that becoming or being a Christian will make your life easier or happier. Who among us is perfect at this whole life thing, after all?
Kaczor acknowledges that “Freud’s atheistic materialism, and reduction of theism to a childish desire for a father figure as a savior from helplessness, exemplifies this conflict” (181). Yet this is not the end of the story. He continues: “the full history of psychology and Christian belief is more complicated and interesting” (181).
Overall, the book is worth reading, and it doing some of the exercises in the book did help me appreciate the people and things in my life more. One key is that it can only work if you are willing to let it, as in to actually try it. If you approach it cynically and assume it’s all a load of baloney, it would be hard to appreciate new things.
Without further ado, here are some of the most interesting and useful parts of the book.
For one thing, he gives a fully fleshed out definition of what happiness actually is: and surprise, it goes beyond feelings and possessions. The acronym PERMA sums it up. Yes, P is for positive emotions (joy, gratitude, etc). E is for engagement, actually participating in communities and activities that are inherently rewarding, and having experiences of flow and total engagement. R is for relationships, loving, self-giving relationships. (Love one another as I have loved you -Christ Jesus). M is for meaning, having a purpose, a connection to something higher.
And finally, A is for accomplishments. This one is interesting. It isn’t about social comparison, but rather putting earnest effort into something meaningful and enjoying both the effort and the final product. “Non-comparative accomplishment is a necessary part of flourishing” (37). “Positive psychology provides powerful evidence that the pursuit of happiness via social comparison is likely to end in disappointment” (37). It is the difference between writing an excellent short story and winning a contest for short story writing. It is about finding work that is intrinsically valuable to the doer, and it is surprisingly difficult to do.
This PERMA definition immediately clarifies why having a law degree and a high salary doesn’t always make people happy. The social comparison aspect actually contributes to disappointment and the money is fine, but it cannot replace the positive emotions, engagements, or meaning. In one sense, all these findings are common sense. But so rarely do we actually practice them in real life.
Fortunately, Kaczor also provides some strategies for developing peace and happiness. Kaczor describes the surprising effectiveness of the 3 Good Things exercise, in which at the end of the day, you reflect on three good things that happened and why they happened.
“The three good things exercise helps correct our negativity bias. Yes, of course, there are things in our lives that we wish were different–things about ourselves, things about others, things about our society. Yet to have an accurate, unbiased understanding, we also need to recognize the good things in ourselves, in others, and in society that we can so quickly forget or even fail to notice all together” (105).
All the bad things in life are real, but so are the good things. Reflecting on this even made getting gas and paying bills less of chores for me. I realized that I am lucky to have a car, lucky to live in a decent home and have heat and air conditioning and electricity. In the past and in the present, many people do not have these goods that I consider so basic as to resent paying for them.
It also helped me to see the interconnected-ness of things. I have a car because my parents bought it for me, not because I earned it or deserve it. And because of it, I have much to be grateful for such as driving an hour out to the country to pick apples with my kids. We humans, myself included, have a tendency to remember negative events, so this exercise helps correct that. Props for that.
Next, forgiveness: Quoting an article, Kaczor describes a grievance story, the type of perspective that prevents forgiveness: “Initially, a grievance story is simply one’s version of what happened. But over time, it can become something more malignant–a detail packed, often obsessively repeated, subtly or not-so-subtly distorted account that embellishes the role of a villain who is responsible for one’s misery.” (121)
Immediately, I could think of countless occasions on which I had done this and felt myself genuinely wronged. But it was in fact a distortion of reality. The other person was not out to get me, and was just pursuing different goods.
In order to forgive, and get over the “I am a victim” mentality that gives others control over our well-being, he refers to the HEAL acronym: Hope, educate, affirm and long-term commitment. I’ll leave the details of that for the reader to discover, but the main purpose is to look for the goals and goods that the other person was trying to pursue and not to take the offense personally. In short, to forgive, we must learn to see the humanity of the other person. In a way, it is much like Non-Violent Communication, by Marshall Rosenberg, and it is also very in line with Christian ethics.
One thing the book doesn’t spend much time on, that I would have appreciated, was obstacles to the happiness; ie the mental blocks or cognitive distortions that skew people’s perceptions of reality and make them unhappy.
Through the book, however, I reflected a good deal on my own life. The most striking thought that has stayed with me most was the assertion that happy people are already in heaven and that miserable people are already in hell. Kaczor quotes Archbishop Fulton Sheen:
“As a matter of fact, heaven is not way out there; heaven is in here. Hell is not way down there; hell could be inside a soul. There is no such thing as dying then going to heaven, or dying and going to hell. You are in heaven already. You are in hell already” (63).
It’s not that we can’t make a change or that our fates are sealed, but that without the love of God and acceptance of his grace, we are literally in hell already. Doesn’t this make sense when we observe people who are perpetually angry and anything will set them off? They already live apart from all goodness; they simply cannot see it, and so they are miserable.
Doesn’t it also make sense when we see someone who seems to shine with an inner light? Such a one has come through horrible situations and circumstances but proved resilient? This person can see others as they truly are, and he or she seeks to alleviate suffering. These people are already in heaven and they are inspiring to us.
It’s worth asking ourselves, where do I live? Heaven or hell? For me, as I suspect for most people, it may be a little of both, up and down some days. But we can ask ourselves where we are living, where we want to live, and we can ask God to help take us there.
Disclosure: I received this book to review for free from Blogging for Books. However, my review is my own, real opinion and I do not benefit from giving it a good or bad review.