March 20 has been designated by the United Nations as the International Day of Happiness. This day has been celebrated since 2013, following a resolution voted by the international body on July 12, 2012.
World leaders recognized that financial, health, employment, or GDP growth data, or other indicators of economic or social progress were not able to truly capture and highlight the importance of people and how they relate to their environments. Happiness is a relevant indicator of how people around the world feel about their lives, the world they live in, and their hopes and aspirations.
The 2020 World Happiness Report was published on March 20, 2020—before the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic could be felt around the world. It featured Finland with a score of 7,809 as the country with the highest “happiness index,” followed by Denmark (7,646) and Switzerland (7,560). Next in line were Iceland (7,504), Norway (7,488), the Netherlands (7,449), Sweden (7,353), New Zealand (7,300), Austria (7,294), and Luxembourg (7,238). My home country, Germany, was in seventeenth place with a score of 7,076, followed immediately by the United States of America (scoring 6,940). At the bottom of the ranking the researchers reported Zimbabwe (3,299), South Sudan (2,817), and, finally, Afghanistan (2,567).
It seems as if the perception of happiness is closely related to a relative sense of prosperity, health, safety, and self-determination. Looking at the listing, one can also perceive a large difference between a sense of happiness experienced by people living in the global North and those living in the global South.
As we watched major parts of our world go into shutdown mode in 2020 and experienced more and more isolation, the happiness index score in most countries must have plummeted. Most of us felt an increasing sense of uncertainty, anxiety, emotional challenges, or even darkness—but definitely not happiness.
Here is the big question that March 20 poses for me personally as a follower of the Man of Galilee: How does Scripture define real happiness, and how can we find it?
The first chapters of Genesis offer us a potential avenue to find answers to these questions. “In the beginning,” everything was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). If there was a happiness index in Eden it went off the charts. Unfortunately, this didn’t last long, for sin and separation entered God’s good creation. We call this the Fall (Genesis 3). Life on planet Earth has been characterized by toil, labor pains, separation, and death ever since. While the Bible doesn’t offer us the definitive 10-step guide to personal happiness, it does show us where to search for and find happiness.
There is a close connection between happiness and being blessed in the Bible. The language of happiness describes a state of being blessed—both in Hebrew in the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament. Psalm 1:1, 2 offers a familiar example: “Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night” (NKJV). The NRSV translates the first word ’ashre with “Happy.” Those who find their delight in the revelation of the character of God (that is, His law) and in His values live under His blessing—and happiness. Jesus’ use of the Greek equivalent is similar, as is obvious in the beatitudes that can be translated both as “Blessed are …” or “Happy are …” (cf. Matthew 5:1–13).
Happiness is determined by how we relate to God. Relational happiness is not separated from our material circumstances. Scripture offers us a wholistic picture. A roof over our head, nourishing food on our table, functional family relationships, meaningful work, and a healthy body are all good reasons to be happy and grateful. Ultimately, however, they can never replace a personal relationship with a God who created and saved us. We are the happiest when we experience that life-changing moment when God whispers into our ears, “My child, you are blessed because I love you” and decide to put our trust in Him (Psalm 2:12). The biblical concept of happiness means that we cling to God even in our darkest moments. “ThoughHe slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15, NKJV), we hear Job saying in the darkest moments of his life, when God felt far away.
Raising Our Happiness Index
Recognizing the blessing of living in the presence of our Creator and Savior and finding happiness in that blessing is a good beginning. But there are a number of ways of even raising our own happiness index. Most have to do with becoming a blessing. Here are some suggestions.
We experience the most basic sense of happiness—according to the Bible—when we understand and accept God’s forgiveness and grace (Psalm 32:1, 2). Forgiveness brings much-needed oxygen and relief to hardened hearts and numbed minds. We begin to “taste and see” God’s goodness (Psalm 34:8). This is not just true individually but also as a much-needed ingredient for a healthy and flourishing community, as suggested by Psalm 33:12.
Once we have tasted and seen God’s goodness in our lives, we are ready to serve others around us. “Blessed is he who considers the poor; the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble,” writes the psalmist in Psalm 41:1 (NKJV). Again, the NRSV translates here “happy” instead of “blessed,” for focusing on others and serving those less fortunate than we are offers real-life health benefits. A Pew Research study using data from 35 countries seems to support this biblical concept. Those who were part of a religious faith community and participated regularly in worship were more likely to feel happiness and were more engaged civically.
This happiness that comes from serving others involves not only their physical needs. It applies also to the dignity and justice of people all around us: “Blessedare those who keep justice, and he who does righteousness at all times!” (Psalm 106:3, NKJV). Jesus seems to point us in the same direction when He pronounces happiness (and a blessing) on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6). Treating others as Jesus treats us unlocks blessings that affect our own wellbeing.
Will the International Day of Happiness change your sense of wellbeing and joy and fulfillment? Most likely not. But it can serve as a reminder that true happiness is relational and intrinsically connected to the One who made us and who saved us. Once we have understood this basic premise, we also recognize that as we relate to others and are willing to serve them, regardless of how or even if it will benefit us, we will be blessed—and happy as well.