About a year ago, I was doing some reading and thinking about happiness. There are a range of ideas out there about what happiness is and how to be happy. And there seems to me to be something substantial to commend more than one of them. But I couldn’t figure it out.
So I was very struck by a talk I recently listened to online by Martin Seligman titled “The New Era of Positive Psychology.” One very simple point he suggests is that there is more than one type of happiness. Or perhaps more precisely, there is more than one dimension to happiness. This is so simple, I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before!
This means, for example, that he can extol the happiness of feeling connected to something bigger than ourselves, while also valuing the simple pleasures of the senses such as food. There is no need to try to reduce them to the same thing, and no need to choose one at the expense of the other. Both are dimensions of happiness.
If this is true, and it seems likely to me, then it also seems to me that it clarifies a problem. How can we genuinely connect with something bigger than ourselves? Given that the things in ourselves give rise to separate dimensions of happiness, it is hard to see how they could be a basis to connect to another type of happiness. The capacities, abilities or dimensions of ourselves that are involved in those things would presumably not be able to reach beyond those dimensions.
In John chapter 6, Jesus is telling a group of people who are concerned with some forms of happiness, such as having enough food, that they need to pursue another dimension. The chapter starts with one of the instances of Jesus miraculously feeding a large crowd of people starting with only a small amount of food (verses 5-13). The story goes on to tell us that the people responded by wanting to make Jesus king by force, but Jesus withdrew by himself (verses 14-15). The next day when the crowd finds Jesus, he says to them, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life…” (verses 26-27)
In the following questions they ask, and the responses Jesus gives, it is clear the crowd struggles to understand what Jesus means and how it can work. Their first question is essentially, how do we do that? (see verse 28) How can we connect, beyond ourselves, to God?
Jesus goes on to explain with a striking claim about himself (verses 48-50). “I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die.” Jesus claims he is not merely a man. Rather he has come down from God, as the one who can connect us with God, so we can have life that even death cannot stop.
By ourselves, we cannot connect to something truly beyond ourselves. But Jesus is bigger.
To find out more, check out our Bible Talks on John 5-8, online or at church on Sundays 23rd of April to 4th of June 2017.