The Happy Life

In The Happy Life – The search for contentment in the modern world (2011), David Malouf asks,
“How is it, when the chief source of human unhappiness, of misery and wretchedness, have largely been removed from our lives – large-scale social injustice, famine, plague and other diseases, the near-certainty of an early death – that happiness still eludes so many of us? … What is it in us, or in the world we have created, that continues to hold us back?” (p. 8)
Malouf’s essay makes for insightful reading. He begins with Thomas Jefferson’s famous speech in June 1776, on the eve of America’s independence from Great Britain, which was perhaps the first time that the Western psyche had articulated the Pursuit of Happiness as a natural “right”, alongside and even in climax after Life and Liberty (p. 9).

Originally the word “happiness” – related to words such as “happen” and “hapless” – was the objective state of being lucky in terms of accidents or events. It had nothing to do with feelings but everything to do with materials (p. 11).

But Jefferson had combined two unrelated areas of human experience (good fortune and enjoyment), and in his famous Declaration joined with the political and legislative role of the State the promise of subjective happiness -- contentment, pleasure, satisfaction. (p. 14). Almost prophetically, he spoke for a generation and a culture whose dream would become much more than the quest for material and objective prosperity.

In sharp contrast the ancients had focused on the ‘interior’ life of the soul, advocating solitude, reflection and imagination as a means of connecting with the inner self as a cure for unrest. (p. 19).

Where are we at in the modern world of 2011?

“What is extraordinary, when we come to the present, is the reversal that has occurred in our notion of “unrest” in a century of iPods, mobile phones, multi-tasking; of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter; of news bites, 24-hour news cycles, jump-cut video clips; and the stimulation of our senses at every moment… Far from being an existential state of anxiety requiring cure, unrest is itself the cure, and for something quite opposite but equally close and persuasive: the fear of inactivity, of stillness; most of all, the withdrawal of every form of chatter or noise in an extended and unendurable silence.” (p. 22).
Today we have inherited a culture of unrest as children of the continual progress that has been created by generations who saw change as the result of their sustained energy and intensity. (p. 28).

And today, in a “crowded and actively happening” world, far from turning back to the ‘inner life’, we have turned to the Body as the source of our self and happiness. We see the possibility of pleasure and life arising from our health and wellbeing and joys ‘in the flesh’. (p. 29).

But though it may be true in general, certainly as a society, that we have ‘little to complain about’, our post-Christian culture still suffers from an age-old fear of external powers that have control over our lives: not God, but our secular lives are governed by the economy – a new impersonal force that we know very little about, and keeps us as stressed and unsafe as ever. (p. 50).

“What most alarms us in our contemporary world, what unsettles and scares us, is the extent to which the forces that shape our lives are no longer personal – they know nothing of us; and to the extent that we know nothing of them – cannot put a face to them, cannot find in them anything we recognize as human – we cannot deal with them. We feel like small, powerless creatures in the coils of an invisible monster, vast but insubstantial, that cannot be grasped or wrestled with.” (p. 55)
Malouf is of course asking one of the most fundamental of all human questions. One thing David Malouf’s essay helps to show is that the gospel is as radical and as revolutionary to our modern world of weary tech-slaves as it was to Jesus’ contemporaries. I hope that Christians widely read and learn from his essay, which is helpful for summarizing not only the classics but also modern thinking and behaviour in a large and busy world.

The Christian not only believes in a personal God who knows us and has put a face to himself – took on flesh, a human body – so that we might recognize him and actually come to know him, our hope is in a real man who can be wrestled with and whose message can be grasped.

The Bible may be a hard read, but Jesus’ promise of new possibilities carry a guarantee that Jefferson’s famous addition of Happiness to the ‘right’ of Life and Liberty could never deliver. More than the dream of a New World here, where we would feel free to seek rest and enjoyment, Jesus’ promise of resurrection into a real world of bodily rest is the guarantee of eternal life and freedom that will bring both an objective prosperity materially and the lasting feeling of happiness.


Malouf, David. The Happy Life – The search for contentment in the modern world (Quarterly Essay, Issue 41, 2011)

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