Tim Kasser, professor of psychology at Knox College and his team have done widespread research on happiness. They have found that the idea of happiness comes from either intrinsic or extrinsic goal setting. Intrinsic goals are relational and communal. These goals include purposeful things like learning something new or working hard. Extrinsic goals tend toward: money, status, and image. In every case those who pursue intrinsic goals are happier than those who pursue extrinsic goals.1
The 2006 movie The Pursuit of Happyness teaches us what it looks like to pursue intrinsic versus extrinsic goals and in the process, reveals the truth about what brings fulfillment in our lives.
The Storyline: Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith) is a budding entrepreneur who, with his wife Linda, invested their life savings in a company selling X-ray machines to hospitals. But it doesn’t take long for their extrinsic dreams to crumble. Chris can’t sell the machines as well as he anticipated. Linda is “no longer happy” and leaves Chris to support their 6-year-old son Christopher. Chris and his son endure eviction, homelessness and abandonment as they struggle to survive. Chris eventually finds an opportunity to take an unpaid internship with Dean Witter, a financial investment company, with the hope of one day getting selected for an actual paid position.
While The Pursuit of Happyness is well acted and is entertaining to watch, it’s much more than that. This story draws us in because we can relate to Chris’ struggles in his marriage, finances and with the world at large. It teaches us what it means to pursue contentment and gives us a shadow of the Gospel as Chris learns the truth about pursuing happiness.
To see how this film speaks to our faith, work and economics, I want to look at three questions: What is happiness?, Why is happiness so hard to sustain? and Where is happiness found?
1. What is Happiness?
Near the beginning of the movie,2 Chris encounters a wealthy man with a Ferrari. Chris asks the man what he does for a living. He tells Chris that he’s a stockbroker. We don’t fully know it yet but this conversation burns in Chris’ heart an extrinsic goal to make money. He says, “I still remember that moment. They all looked so damn happy to me. Why couldn’t I look like that?”
Chris has a perception of happiness that he links to material wealth. Chris is discontent because everywhere he turns he’s a failure. He can’t pay his bills, he can’t pay the daycare, and he can’t make his wife happy. He can’t even pay his parking tickets!
What Chris really means by “happy” is contentment. And so, to Chris, the secret to contentment is the right job, which pays the right salary. He longs to be content. This scene forces us to ask, “Can money really buy us happiness?” Chris saw a seemingly happy man, but what he couldn’t see is that happiness can’t be sustained by work and money alone.
In Ecclesiastes 2:11 (NIV) King Solomon understands this better than anyone, “…when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”
King Solomon is teaching us that we can be successful and wealthy and still never find happiness. Happiness must be rooted in a deeper security than wealth and personal success in our work, because even a King finds happiness hard to sustain.
2. Why is happiness so hard to sustain?
We see some hope for Chris when he finally gets a meeting with Walter Ribbon, a top executive at Pacific Bell. Their meeting takes place at a San Francisco 49ers game. While watching the game Chris begins to contemplate his own life. He says,3 “Thomas Jefferson mentions happiness a couple of times in the Declaration of Independence. May seem like a strange word to be in that document, but he was sort of…He was an artist. He called the English, ‘The disturbers of our harmony.’ And I remember standing there that day thinking about the disturbers of mine.”
Chris suffers from inner and external disturbers of his peace. His inner disturbers are his own desire to impress everyone around him (even lying a few times). While his external disturbers were things like Linda leaving or getting evicted and sleeping in the subway bathroom; peace had constantly eluded Chris. Man’s rebellion from God in Genesis 3 means that our work is constantly impacted by sin. At best our work is enjoyable but at worst it’s hard, futile and even idolatrous. Chris equates happiness to contentment and contentment to inner-peace. But everywhere he turns his life is disturbed.
But fortunately that’s not where the film leaves us.
3. Where is happiness found?
When the movie begins Chris’ original perception of happiness was based upon external circumstances. But later, Chris learns another lesson. He learns that happiness is found not in money or success but in identity. As the movie draws to a close and Chris has overcome obstacle after obstacle, we see the sweet moment of success where Chris finds “happiness” when Chris is offered a job with Dean Witter.4 But is this happiness? Chris’ definition of happiness is now larger than just money. Chris now has new identity, one that is rooted in the intrinsic goals of character and hard work.
Chris found happiness in a new identity, and we have peace as we watch the closing scene and are led to believe that Chris and his son are going to be all right. But we’re left to wonder, will they be ok? Will they sustain their happiness?
The truth about happiness is that if we seek to find rest in anything but God we’ll be eternally restless. Like Chris Gardner we pursue happiness because what we really want is rest. But unlike Chris, the Christian knows that we will never find rest apart from Christ. Our happiness, our contentment, our rest must have deeper roots.
In Psalm 62 we read, “Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him. Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.”
In our work, in our accomplishments in life we must remember that True Happiness is rooted in True Rest which is only found in Christ alone.
- What can you learn from Chris and his work ethic? What can you learn from his ability to overcome obstacles and trials?
- How can you identify with Chris and his struggle for happiness? Is there a particular scene that stuck out to you that hits home to you? Why?
- Do you struggle with finding rest in money and success? Read Philippians 4:12-13. How does finding your identity in Christ help you relate to Paul when he says, “I have learned the secret of being content”?
Scott Herron is a youth and family pastor in Bozeman, Montana. Scott has a Masters degree from Covenant Seminary (St. Louis) and is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He is married to his wife Alison and they have three kids and a mini-schnauzer. They find Montana summers with the low humidity to be the first fruits of the New Heavens and the New Earth.
1 http://ase.tufts.edu/gdae/cs/personal%20 well-being.pdf.
2 See the 9:30-10:30 mark.
3 See the 1:12:43-1:13:10 mark.
4 See the 1:50:10 mark.