What Good is the Science of Happiness for the Church?

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Explaining what we do at Science for the Church can be tricky. Few people think of science and see how it is relevant to the work of the church.  What does string theory or thermodynamics or protein synthesis have to do with worship, the proclamation of the gospel, evangelism, social justice, and good old Christian fellowship?

We occasionally tackle those tougher topics (like entropy) and try to draw some connections, but then there are really easy themes (like forgiveness).  I want to tackle an easy theme today.

Happiness research, a central theme of the growing positive psychology field, seeks to understand what it looks like when our mental and emotional life is good. What makes us happy and contributes to human flourishing? That might seem cheesy and even shallow for those of us who find our satisfaction in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but this research can be an asset to our ministries.

The Plight of Third Graders

Recently, I was talking with a fellow parent. We lamented the pressure our girls were feeling around state testing, which for them begins in third grade. The pressure to achieve gripped our 8 year olds, taking much of the joy out of school. I know my daughter picks this up from her older sisters, especially my 12th grader, who is preparing college applications.

But the achievement culture, the feeling that we always need to be doing more and doing it better, affects almost all of us. For some, it is totally consuming, evident in 80- to 100-hour work weeks. For others, it is paralyzing, overwhelming us until we shut down. Most of us lie somewhere in between, struggling to find a healthy balance knowing every day that there is more we could do and achieve at work, home, or church.

Enter a word from Yale psychologist Laurie Santos. Please pause long enough to watch this 6-minute reflection on the relevance of happiness research. Here is the transcript for that video.

  • This culture of achievement has become toxic, especially for our children.
  • This podcast hosted by psychologist Dacher Keltner offers many practices grounded in happiness science that nurture self-compassion.
  • We have addressed many of the themes Dr. Santos references: the importance of relationships, gratitude, and the importance of Sabbath.
  • We have many resources collected on mental health.
  • If your church does not already partner with a mental health professional or counseling service, we encourage you to do so. Contact us if you need help finding one.

Science We Need in the Church

No, I was serious. If you didn’t already, please go back and watch that video.

Dr. Santos understands the experience of her students, which mirrors what so many of us feel. “More” and “better” motivate nearly every aspect of our lives, whether it is to make our lives appear full on Instagram or to ensure our ministry shares God’s love with everyone God puts in front of us.

Dr. Santos tells us the science is clear: “More” and “better” don’t make us happier, and it makes us more individualistic, which is not a recipe for flourishing for a species designed to be in community. Instead science suggests how we can counter the pressure to achieve: allow ourselves to do less, practice self-compassion, turn our attention to other people, and step back long enough to experience gratitude.

Immediately my mind races to all the ways these insights might enrich the kinds of things churches already do. Let me name just a few:

  • Small group ministry is deeply relational and a place where we can pause the achievement urge, show compassion to others, and reflect on things for which we are grateful. A small group could leverage this video to re-orient the group and to help its members practice a recipe for flourishing.
  • Our churches are good at praying for others and giving thanks. We also often pray when we think we didn’t do enough or do it well enough, confessing how we fall short. These are good things, but I wonder if we can learn to pray in a manner that also expresses self-compassion.
  • Ministry and missions are good for us. Serving the needs of others, within the church or beyond it, are one of the best ways to resist the individualistic aspects of our achievement culture. How do we develop and sustain these ministries that do so much good for everyone involved?
  • Volunteers are the lifeblood of the church. But how does it affect them when we keep asking them to do more (or expect them to do better)? How do we reframe volunteer work, so people see how it benefits others and contributes to their own flourishing?
  • Our children and youth are picking up this culture of “more” and “better,” and it is having devastating effects on their mental health. How can youth and children’s ministry offer an antidote to this achievement culture?
  • Paul exhorts us to give thanks in all circumstances (I Thes. 5:18). According to research, this is directly connected to our well-being. How can churches be even more intentional about cultivating gratitude?
  • This science will preach, especially alongside biblical texts that consider where our value is found, the place of work in our lives, or where Christians are to look for hope. Can this video or Dr. Santos’s words enrich a Bible study or sermon on these themes?
  • We should already be preaching the fourth commandment. The well-being of the church and our wider culture would improve if we drew more attention to why it is important to follow God’s instruction to remember the Sabbath.

Hope for Happiness Research

Happiness research truly can be science for the church. It aligns so nicely with the gospel—that our hope lies foremost with the God who sent us his only Son to redeem us.

God speaking through the prophet Jeremiah reminds us, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer. 29:11). For the Israelites struggling through the hardship of exile or for us today struggling daily with expectations to do “more” and do it “better,” the same truth applies. Our hope for the future lies not in our circumstances or achievements but in the plans God has for us. When this truth is put alongside the practical insights from the science of happiness, we see in new ways how our churches can help us to truly flourish.



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