In the wake of the introduction by David Cameron of the UK Happiness Index, a statistical device set up a couple of years back, research has apparently identified Blackpool as the most miserable place in Britain, if you use as a yardstick the number of anti-depressants that are prescribed there. Indications are that one in six people in Blackpool are taking them.
Such a criterion is, of course, scarcely an accurate or scientific indicator in itself. But then, how do you measure a nation's happiness, or a person's sense of well-being? It would seem self-evident that we need to look beyond the material indicators of well-being. That is a myth that both politicians and advertisers seem committed to perpetuate. The mere assertion that the economy is beginning to improve does not necessarily translate into a greater national satisfaction with life, especially if the economic turnaround has been at the cost of exacerbated social problems and decimated public services. Clearly, there is much more to a sense of happiness than merely an increase in the national GDP.
Neither has the marketing ploy of "Happiness is…. " (add your latest gadget, designer label, brand of chocolate etc) brought a dent into the number of prescriptions for anti-depressants. According to the NHS information centre, the figure rose by 28% from 34 million in 2007-8 to a whopping 43.4 million in 2010-11.
Now it appears that initial research has concluded that it is health, family and relationships that are the most important 'happiness' ingredients for most people. Whether the £2 million spent in uncovering that sensational revelation was a worthwhile investment is a question that may spring to some readers' minds. But interestingly, the report also discovered that the importance of Christian faith on people's lives and thoughts had been underestimated.
Jesus did, of course, make some very interesting observations about happiness in the Sermon on the Mount. Whilst it is certainly a fair point that the word "happy" as used in modern translations of the Beatitudes might be a poor substitute for "blessed", the fact remains that here, and at numerous other points in the Bible, the teaching is that our wellbeing results from our relationship with God. Knowing God and being in a loving relationship with our Creator is the path to true happiness or blessedness.
Having said that, of course, it needs to be said that the whole purpose of the Gospel is not simply to make us feel happy. One of the many pseudo-gospels that circulate in the Church today could be summed up in the strapline, "Come to Jesus and he will make you happy". That's a grossly misleading misrepresentation, especially as Jesus clearly forewarned his followers "In the world you will have trouble" (John 16:33).
The genuine gospel could be much more accurately conveyed in the line "Come to Jesus and he will make you holy". Jesus came into this world to die on a cross so as to deal with our sin. Now it is certainly true that there is a connection between happiness and holiness. It is the lack of holiness in our lives that is ultimately the root cause of most unhappiness. But in our naivety we tend to get things the wrong way round. God's primary will for us in this world is holiness, and he is at times quite willing to allow circumstances or situations to occur in our lives which may be painful and cause great unhappiness, but which serve the purpose of making us more holy as a result.
Our character and our Christlikeness matures and progresses much more when we undergo trials and difficulties than if life was the proverbial "bed of roses." But then the holiness produced generates a contentment and happiness that this world cannot give.
The Pursuit of Happiness may be enshrined in the American Constitution but what Christians should be aiming for primarily is The Pursuit of Holiness, recognising that God's intention and design for us is to be holy in this world, and happy in the next.