My family went to an amusement park 10 miles east of downtown Cincinnati on the banks of the Ohio River every summer. There wasn’t much that was exciting for me in Anderson, Indiana where I grew up. So I looked forward to the 3 hour trip to the land of happiness every year. I still remember the day I was tall enough to ride the roller coaster. My oldest sister, Sharon, and I stood in line together with great anticipation. I had been warned that it was a terribly frightening experience, but nothing would deter me. For too many years I had watched others go on this ride, heard there screams as they took that first plunge, and saw their giddy smiles as they exited the ride. They were more than happy, they were ecstatic. Finally, it was my turn to experience such happiness. It was thrilling. I loved it. I wanted to go again and again, no matter how long the line. I equated happiness with riding that roller coaster.
How can a roller coaster provide the sense of happiness? According to Dr. Epstein (researcher from the University of Wisconsin), ”Being totally absorbed is in itself pleasurable. Complete concentration that blanks out everything else temporarily relieves you from all conflicts. Even if it’s scary, its a way to drive out disturbing thoughts. It makes you feel very alive to be so scared. When you react to something that demands your full attention so forcefully, all your senses engage. It’s a very different feeling from being in your usual semi-awake state.”
This is a sobering insight. It’s so easy to live each day in a semi-awake state waiting for the next bolus of happiness to come our way through thrills, adventures, and whatever makes us feel good. We accept our semi-awake state as we wait for the next pleasure sensation in what our forefathers declared to be our inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. We settle for this semi-awake state because of our disturbing thoughts, according to Dr. Epstein. These thoughts steal our happiness. The roller coaster works to induce a sense of happiness as long as it keeps your attention away from your inner problems. But as soon as the roller coaster is known by your brain to really be safe, it loses it’s power to satisfy your pursuit of happiness. No wonder a new and better more scary roller coaster is introduced every few years. We have an insatiable appetite for thrills that simulate real happiness.
There’s a better way to find happiness. Jesus has given us the key ingredients to true, lasting happiness. Happiness is so fundamental to human existence that Jesus began His sermon on the mount with instructions on how we can actually be happy as opposed to seeking experiences that make us feel happy. You can read about these steps to happiness in Matthew 5:3-12. If you read this passage, you will find that happiness is an inside job that requires your total attention, just as Dr. Epstein said. Once you recognize your true condition (the first beatitude), there is no external circumstance, not even persecution (the last beatitude), that can take away your happiness. In fact, the foundation of your happiness in both the first and the last beatitude is “the kingdom of heaven.” Yes, when you have the kingdom of heaven in your heart, God has your full attention and you will BE HAPPY.