Material possessions bring happiness, but it's fleeting. For happiness that lasts forever, we have to dig deeper.
If you ask children about the happiest times in their lives, they may well say “Christmas”. And if you ask them what’s best about Christmas, they may well say, “presents”. Their next happiest time is very often their birthday, closely followed by holidays.
For most children in the West, Christmas is a magical time culminating in piles of Christmas presents beneath the tree. But although children’s happiness may focus on the presents, there’s far more to it than that. There’s the mounting excitement throughout December, fuelled by school plays and carol services and parties and by the shops. Whatever you may think about the commercialisation of Christmas, there can be little doubt that the Christmas displays and decorations and Christmas lights make a feast for the eyes.
Then there’s the decorating at home and the mountains of Christmas cards and the choosing and wrapping of presents for other people and filling the store cupboard with mouth-watering food for the feast.
No wonder children are high by the time Christmas Eve, with its promise of a visit by Santa Claus, comes round.
And it’s us adults who encourage and promote all this happiness for children. Perhaps because many of us remember the magic of Christmas when we were children and want our children to enjoy that same experience. Or perhaps because it gives us such a boost to see their excitement and their happiness.
One of the problems we manage to generate with this approach is that many children never get beyond equating presents with happiness and this continues for the rest of their lives. So we have the media constantly telling us all the different things we need in order to make us happy, and most people believe the media because happiness has always been associated with Christmas and focused on presents.
But for adults and children, the happiness generated by Christmas presents is fairly fleeting. Even on Christmas Day, once the presents are all opened and the new toys have been played with a couple of times, a little bit of dissatisfaction often begins to creep in. And by Boxing Day, when there are no surprises left, there can often be a real sense of anti-climax.
Of course, when we look back at our own childhood Christmases we don’t remember much about Boxing Day and the anti-climax. We tend to remember the huge excitement of Christmas Eve when Santa was on his way and the delight and wonder of the presents we received, even though we’re unlikely to remember what many of those presents actually were.
We live in an age when happiness is so closely associated with material goods, that it’s never questioned. There is an assumption that if you win the lottery you will automatically be happy, with no attendant recognition that once the excitement is over the happiness will disappear, no matter how many millions you have. The implication is always that the more you have, the happier you will be. But that’s a lie. It is simply not true .
The 20-year-old Swaffham man who won £9 million on the lottery, in later years was in and out of court and prison for theft, so clearly the lottery win didn’t bring him any lasting happiness.
The clue is in the word, “lasting”. There can be little doubt that material goods and wealth do bring happiness, but we need to be aware that the happiness they bring isn’t permanent. It’s a temporary phenomenon to be enjoyed for the moment but which lasts about as long as the excitement and newness lasts. Once that excitement and newness wears off, the happiness dissipates.
For Christians, the Good News is that it doesn’t have to be like that. We can have lasting happiness. We just need to adjust our angle slightly. We have to recognise and to believe that although material benefits do bring happiness, they will never bring happiness that lasts.
Then we have to recognise and believe the truth of Jesus’ words when he said, “Those who are prepared to lose their life will gain it.”
In other words, we have to be prepared to let go of some of those things which bring instant excitement and happiness if we want to pursue long-lasting, enduring happiness.
We find long-lasting happiness by opening ourselves to God.
Jesus came to show us how to do this. He was born as a tiny, vulnerable, helpless baby, just as we’re all born. He lived a human life with its good times and its bad times, its ups and its downs, just as all of us live. But he showed that it’s perfectly possible to be happy in the bad times as well as in the good times, and he showed that happiness doesn’t depend on what you possess. In fact he said, “How happy are those who are poor, for they shall see God’s kingdom.”
Happiness doesn’t depend on material possessions or on excitement and anticipation. It depends on a relationship with God. If God is real to you, if God responds to your prayers, if you know that God is on your side whatever happens and whatever you may do or think, then you’ll be happy with a deep down happiness which lasts forever.
St Paul called this kind of deep happiness, “The peace which passes all understanding.” It’s an underlying happiness which underpins your life and which never deserts you even in the sad and bad times of your life.
It doesn’t mean that you never again feel out of sorts. It doesn’t mean that you’re never again grumpy or irritable. It doesn’t mean that you never cry. It doesn’t mean that you laugh through the bad times and don’t feel their pain. But it does mean that the depth of you is content and at peace and satisfied.
So for next Christmas I wish you the best present you can ever have. I wish you the happiness that lasts – God’s happiness.
Through Christmas and birthdays, children learn to associate happiness with gifts and material possessions.
The media enhance this understanding and many adults never get beyond it.
But the happiness generated by material goods is fleeting.
There’s an assumption that if you win the Lottery you will be happy – but it’s a lie.
We have to be prepared to let go of some of those things which bring instant excitement and happiness if we want to pursue long-lasting, enduring happiness.
We find long-lasting happiness by opening ourselves to God.
Jesus showed us that it’s perfectly possible to be happy in the bad times as well as in the good times, and he showed that happiness doesn’t depend on what you possess.
If God is real to you, if God responds to your prayers, if you know that God is on your side whatever happens and whatever you may do or think, then you’ll be happy with a deep down happiness which lasts forever.
It doesn’t mean that you laugh through the bad times and don’t feel their pain.
But it does mean that the depth of you is content and at peace and satisfied.