Mann in Kirche

School of Happiness

Theologian Daniel Maier researches ideas about happiness in ancient Judaism and in the New Testament. The Bible is one of the oldest happiness handbooks in the world, he says – one that still holds words of wisdom for us today.

Text: Roger Nickl
Picture: Jos Schmid
Translation: Caitlin Stephens

A pandemic doesn’t seem like the obvious time to think about happiness. But that’s exactly what Daniel Maier has been doing: He’s convinced that in times of crisis in particular, it is vital to reflect on what makes a good and satisfying life. “It’s not a luxury or a frivolity, it’s an existential necessity,” believes the 29-year-old theologian. Maier cites the example of the Paul the Apostle, whose epistles from prison in Rome were expressions of joy and hope, even in the face of death. In his voluntary work with refugees in Germany, Maier discussed with them the topic of happiness and hope in apparently hopeless situations. “The idea that life goes on, that God has planned a path for you, gives people strength,” he says.

Trusting in God

Maier then made his passionate conviction the subject of his PhD research. In his award-winning thesis, he examined ideas about happiness in the New Testament and researched their roots in ancient Judaism. “The biblical texts were often written in life-threatening situations,” says the researcher, who with his long bushy beard and bald head could be taken for a prophet himself. “In the Bible, we find happiness in the hope that there is a God who is present, purposeful and fair,” says Maier. “In the biblical texts there is faith that crises are not the end, but will lead to something new, a different kind of happiness.” That’s an uplifting message that is still relevant today.

Daniel Maier has long been fascinated with the philosophy of happiness, a subject thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics were already grappling with thousands of years ago. Later, alongside his theology studies, he took a course in positive psychology, a branch of psychology which deals with the positive side of life – contentment, optimism and happiness.

Nowadays the self-help shelves are overflowing with books on the art of happiness – some science-based, others more esoteric. However, as Maier points out, one of the oldest happiness handbooks is the Bible. It contains centuries of human experience of searching for a good life with God: Experiences both sacred and profane, of depression, of joy and of gratitude. “We can learn a lot from the Bible about ourselves as people and our fundamental needs,” says Maier. The Bible as a school of happiness, then

Philosophical humus

Until recently, however, there was scant research into happiness as presented in the Book of Books. “The topic of happiness in the New Testament has been almost completely ignored by the academy,” says Maier. “In the past in Protestantism, happiness was not seen as something desirable – the aim of life was not to be happy, so why should researchers be interested in it?” Thanks to Daniel Maier, that is now changing and the young theologian is beating a new academic path exploring the uncharted biblical territory of happiness.

 He has also probed the philosophical humus in which the diverse ideas about happiness presented in the Bible were able to germinate. That fertile soil includes the work of ancient thinkers who dealt with the subject of happiness, and the writings of 1st century scholars, from which the New Testament emerged. For example, Jewish philosopher and theologian Philo of Alexandria (born 15-10 BCE, died 40 CE) found happiness in seclusion and communal contemplation, while Hellenistic-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (born 37-38 BCE, died 100 CE), on the other hand, was a “happiness pragmatist”, in Maier’s words. Josephus held that people were only partially responsible for their own happiness, because ultimately everything lay in the hands of God.

Aristotle also came under Maier’s scrutiny: For the pupil of Plato, the highest aim in life was eudemonia – living a successful, good life (from the Greek word for happiness Eudaimon). “In that case, the royal road to happiness is to pursue wisdom and become a philosopher,” chuckles the theologian. In the New Testament, Saint Paul takes this idea further. “For Paul, there was an even higher goal than eudemonia: The imitation of Christ. All striving and happiness leads to Christ.” This shift in ancient ideas about happiness as they were transferred from old traditions into the New Testament was not limited to Saint Paul, discovered Maier in his research.

Showing gratitude

New perspectives are also to be found in the Beatitudes given by Jesus in his famous Sermon on the Mount. “The novelty there was that the sermon and the promise of happiness were addressed directly to the outcasts and weakest members of society. That was very uncommon for those times,” says Maier. “The Sermon on the Mount is a rousing message of happiness for people from all walks of life – that’s what makes it so compelling.”

Many of the biblical ideas about happiness which Maier discovered in his analysis coincide with the findings of positive psychology. For example, the essential role of gratitude in personal contentment. “A recommendation in positive psychology is that every evening you write down three things from the day for which you are grateful,” says Maier. “You could do just the same in an evening prayer giving thanks to God, as the early Christians of the New Testament did.” Another important factor for happiness is, as mentioned, the capacity for hope – the optimistic faith that new happiness is around the corner, even if it doesn’t seem so at present.

Finding purpose

At the core of the New Testament texts is the idea that happiness does not occur of its own accord. True, one may experience temporary spontaneous feelings of euphoria – such as upon seeing a wonderful view of the ocean. But this kind of joy – hedonic happiness in the scientific parlance – is usually only short-lived. A more reliable guarantee of long-lasting contentment is “eudemonic happiness”. This is the kind of satisfaction experienced when you set yourself higher goals and work at meaningful, purposeful tasks. This could entail helping society and other people in some way – or pursuing wisdom and research, like the erstwhile Aristotle. This insight, borne out by modern psychological research, was already known by the writers of the Bible three thousand years ago.

However, the kind of oven-ready recipes for a happy life prescribed by today’s self-help gurus are not to be found in the Bible, warns Maier. Rather, reading the Bible opens up space for individual reflection and provides diverse opportunities to find one’s own personal relationship with happiness. “If we believe there is a creator, he apparently made us all completely unique,” says Maier. In the Bible as in life, many roads lead to happiness.