The first, quick nine points of this practical, how-to article is for everyone, believer or unbeliever, so it’s about common or “everybody” or general grace. The tenth point is a bonus: it’s about saving or special grace.
Let’s begin with common grace.
How do you become happy?
1. Search out the best path to happiness.
You’ve heard of the county song, “Looking for love in all the wrong places”? Well, it would be more accurate to say, “Looking for happiness in all the wrong places.”
Are you hungry to change? Are you sick and tired of being sick and tired? Are you willing to pay the cost to acquire happiness?
Further, the best path does not mean you do your own thing only. You’ve tried that already. The happiness we’re looking for is for everyone.
So what is the best path towards happiness that everyone can travel on?
2. Eliminate what happiness is not.
This is the process of elimination.
It can’t be mere, barren life, for plants have that. It can be a life of sensations, for animals have that.
Pleasure can’t be it. You’ve tried partying and smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol and taking other drugs. You’ve tried “relationships.”
Those are the means or path to what you’re seeking—happiness. And those paths can be defective.
Been there, done that.
3. Happiness must be in accord with what is unique to humankind.
What is it that distinguishes us from plants and other mammals? Let’s take the shortcut and spell it out: our reason. We can connect reason to our soul. So happiness pertains to the soul, not to mere living existence like plants or animal sensations.
Further, humans are by nature social beings, so happiness must be lived out in society.
But it cannot depend on society. So one aspect of happiness is self-sufficiency. That’s not to say you strut around telling people, “I don’t need you!” No, you have a calm soul that teaches you that you can’t depend on other humans for your ultimate source of happiness.
Another aspect that’s unique to humankind’s soul is activity. No one can say he’s happy if he lives a minimal life of just sitting around like a blob. To be happy, you have to be active.
So let’s add things up so far: rational soul + social + self-sufficient + active
4. Find what kind of function is best for an active, rational soul.
We’re looking for ultimate happiness. A pianist practices and becomes a good pianist. So what does an active, rational soul do? What is proper to it? If a carpenter becomes better by doing carpentry, what must an active, rational soul do to become better?
The best description that fits an active, rational soul is to function in excellence or moral virtue. The soul must thrive and flourish.
Now let’s shift the equation around a little:
Rational, active, social, self-sufficient soul + functioning in excellence or moral virtue
5. Now you have to practice moral virtues.
Virtues like temperance or courage are two examples to begin with (but there are many others).
If you no longer want to party like an animal in heat, you pursue temperance. You have to practice it. You may need to tell your old party friends no. You may have to stay home and read a book or go out with friends who practice temperance.
For courage, let’s imagine that you’re afraid of little things. You will simply have to practice courage, even when you don’t feel like it. You have to do it afraid.
Remember the pianist? She has to practice, and then she gets better. Likewise, you have to practice temperance or courage, and then you get better at them.
Remember, the rational soul has to be active. You have to do the virtues. And you have to practice them deliberately. You can’t improve your soul by accident.
The rational soul also has to be social, so you may need to ask for help from friends.
But the rational soul has to be self-sufficient, so you will ultimately be the one who practices. You can’t have your friend practice the piano for you; you have to do it. Your excellent, piano-playing friend can encourage you, though.
6. Avoid two extremes: excess and deficiency.
One good way to spot when you’re functioning in excellence of soul is to consider the two extremes of courage or temperance.
Courage first: too much of it (excess) is foolhardiness, like extreme skiers or tight-rope walkers. Foolhardiness is a vice, not a virtue.
The other extreme is cowardice (too little). Deficiency of courage, cowardice, is a vice as well.
For temperance, too much (excess) of it is when you sit around like an unfeeling blob; too little (deficiency) temperance is when you go out and party hardy.
You have to avoid the two extremes.
So here is the formula again:
Rational, active, social, self-sufficient soul + functioning in excellence or moral virtue + practice + avoiding the two extremes
7. You have to know yourself.
I’ve traveled around the entire globe (not really) and I’ve interviewed all seven billion people (not really). I’ve concluded that only about a million know themselves (feels that way).
Think of how people could benefit society if they just knew themselves, even a little. Messianic politicians shouldn’t run for or be in office. Think of teen idols who act foolishly.
It takes time to figure out where you are on the two extremes. Are you prone to party out? Then cut back. Are you prone to sit around alone? Then go out more in a wholesome way.
Do you take dangerous risks in your diving? Then you’re foolhardy, and you need to cut back. Do you drive 30 mph in a 50 mph zone and gnaw on the steering wheel? Then you have to follow the law and speed up safely.
Where are you on the spectrum? On the two polar opposites foolhardiness or cowardice, or in the middle—courageous? Are you intemperate (licentious) or too temperate (insensible) or just right (temperate)?
Do you know yourself well enough to spot where you are?
Now let’s vary the formula a little:
Rational, active, social, self-sufficient, self-knowing soul + functioning in excellence or moral virtue + practice + avoiding two extremes
8. Be on guard against pleasure.
It’s more difficult to judge the virtues that relate to this emotion or sensation. You may have make some trial and error here. But don’t deviate too far towards the two polar opposite extremes.
9. To be happy, you have to hit the mean or middle between the two extremes.
This is hard work. You have to know what your weaknesses or vices are. You have to practice the right virtue to counter-weigh or balance out your weakness. Practicing the virtues is to function in excellence. The virtue sits between two extremes. Hit the mean or middle and avoid the two sides of the pole or spectrum.
Here’s our equation, completed.
Rational, active, social, self-sufficient, self-knowing soul + functioning in excellence or moral virtue + practice + avoiding two extremes + hitting the mean = happiness.
Please don’t think my equation is simplistic. I use it only as a tool.
Don’t be surprised if it takes you a lifetime to make progress, but on the other hand don’t be discouraged because you’ll see improvement rather quickly. And don’t let guilt overwhelm you if you fail. Pick yourself up and keep working at it.
I encourage you to read the first two books of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (available online); don’t be intimidated if it takes you many times to get it. But it’s worth it. It’s one of the few philosophical texts that is a life-changer.
Now go for it!
10. Saving grace bonus.
Be connected to Gold in a personal relationship. He’ll help you know yourself and you vices, and yes, he’ll point out where you’re strong, too.
God living in you can work wonders and speed the process up.
Be active: reach out to people.
Be social: go to church regularly.
Be spiritual and rational in a balanced sense: people who are irrational in their walk with God can go too far, and people who are too rational can miss life in the Spirit.
Self-sufficient: Paul says in Php. 4:11 he’s content in every circumstance. The word content is autarkeia, which means self-sufficient.
Grace sufficient: The Lord spoke to him, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9) in Paul’s momentary bafflement about why he couldn’t shake the thorn in the flesh.
It’s better to be grace-sufficient than self-sufficient.
Self-knowledge: John Calvin said knowledge of God and of the self and mutually connected.
Functioning in excellence: this is best done by a personal relationship with God and doing what he has called you to do.
Practice: practice the presence of God; practice the disciplines, like reading Scripture and praying specifically about your vices and asking God to grow the fruit of the Spirit in you (Gal. 5:22-23). Spirit-produced virtues are a lot easier than common-grace virtues.
Avoid the two extremes: yes, and God will give you wisdom and discernment on what the extremes are.
Hitting the mean: it’s always good advice to live a balanced life over the long haul.
Adding all this up, you get something better than happiness.
You get blessedness.
This is not for saints. It’s for the “ain’ts.” It’s for you and me.
We can live the blessed life, functioning in soul-health, prosperity (our basic needs are met), and good fellowship.
Start the journey with him.
With God, all things are possible.
Post originally published on Aug. 18, 2015.