The Right to Happiness and Gratitude


Which is more important: happiness or gratitude? I think the answer is clear, but the opposite view seems to get more play and more buy-in. The result is that we live in a world that is often marked by both unhappiness and ingratitude. What do you think?

In the United States, we are promised by the Constitution the right to pursue happiness, and that idea distinctly permeates our culture and individual attitudes in these United States. That phrase was coined over two hundred years ago, and it has undergone a subtle change. We have shortened the phrase from a “right to pursue happiness” to a “right to happiness”.

Many people today live as if everyone has a right to happiness. Some of us do not want to pursue happiness so much as we want it given to us. That view is conveyed and reinforced in politics, and in popular TV shows, Disney movies, popular books and in many other ways. We rarely stop to think about it. We just assume it, and that assumption leads to unrealistic expectations and frustrations because happiness comes and goes. Happiness is fleeting and often eludes us. It can even elude us when we have everything we want!

Happiness is a relative term. The things that make me happy many not make my neighbor happy. The things I find to be most pleasurable, satisfying, and fulfilling my neighbor may not value as much (if at all). Things that make one person happy might even make other people unhappy, because our desires often conflict with others. (I like to play music loud, but that doesn’t make my neighbor happy!)

Our happiness is often also connected to and affected by other people. Our happiness is often tangled up in how other people see us, relate to us and interact with us. Spouses, parents, family and friends, co-workers and even acquaintances, all impact on our happiness. The things we want from them they may not be able, or willing, to give us.

Happiness is often tied to things we cannot control. The fact that we cannot control them, itself, is a source of unhappiness. Unhappiness grows out of the way people treat us and interact with us and from other circumstances that we do not control. For that reason, and others, happiness is a spurious goal and an illusory right.

Happiness and gratitude may seem to be linked, but they are not. While happiness may depend to some extent on our gratitude, gratitude does not depend at all on happiness. We can be grateful even when we are not happy, but happiness is difficult to find without gratitude.

While we think of happiness as a right, we don’t view gratitude the same way. We tend to view gratitude as an obligation or something others earn from us (maybe for making us happy). Gratitude is sometimes also our response when we are thankful for things we do not deserve or did not think we deserved. In fact, if we think we earned what we have, we might not even be grateful for it all.

Gratitude is more than a reaction; it’s a choice. Happiness is a state of being we often don’t control, but gratitude is an attitude we usually must choose. We can choose to be happy, also, but that kind of “happiness” begins to look a lot more like gratitude.

Consider the situation of Martin Pistorius. At the age of 12, his body began to fail him. He eventually became unable to move, unable to speak, unable to do anything. He lapsed into unconsciousness…. for two years! When he began to “come to”, he found that he was trapped inside his own body, isolated and utterly alone. All he could do was think.

I was entombed in my own body. I couldn’t tell anyone that I had returned to life. People knew that I had become more responsive, but they still believed I was severely brain damaged. And so I was fed and cleaned while being sat in front of reruns of Barney. I dreamed of smashing the television screen.

People looked around me and through me. However much I tried to beg and plead, shout and scream, I couldn’t get them to notice me. I had woken up as a ghost.

Martin spent 12 whole years walled up in his own body, isolated from the very people who attended to him, unable to communicate with them, and most of the time he was conscious and aware of everything. He remembers clearly, for instance, the time his mother said, “I hope you die.”

Martin had lost all control over every aspect of his life other than his thoughts. You can listen to the NPR version of Martin’s story here

This got me to thinking. To some extent, we have little control over our lives, and much of the control we think we have is illusory. We don’t choose our most fundamental circumstances, our genetics, our birth parents or birth place, the chemical make up of our brains, our physical attributes and so on. Some of us go through much of our lives wishing for different circumstances, and much of our energy is exercised in efforts to change those circumstances.

While people in centuries past have had more fatalistic views of the world, modern Americans seem have a virtual smorgasbord of choices. Yet, happiness eludes us. Today, we champion choice and freedom and individual rights, but those things often look and feel like a cruel mirage in the dessert to many people who are trapped by circumstances that are beyond their control.

The one control we have that never is beyond our reach is how we react to the circumstances in which we find our selves. Martin Pistorius is the perfect example. The only thing he controlled was his own thoughts and his reactions to what was going on around him. Literally, everything else was out of his control.

In the NPR piece linked above, we heard the story from a third party perspective. The story focuses on what Martin “did” by engaging his thoughts and tackling even the darkest thoughts head on. The author of the NPR piece, Lulu Martin, said, “He was trapped, with only his thoughts for company”; but that was not entirely true, and the rest of the story, the story NPR did not tell, is the most important one.

The circumstances Martin experienced were as dire as any circumstances a person could imagine. He had his own thoughts, but he had something else too, and that made all the difference. The most significant aspect of Martin’s story is told in his own words:

Soon after I started to become aware, God came into my life.

One night I suddenly “awoke” from sleep. It felt as if I were floating far above my bed. Instinctively, I knew that I was not breathing. I could see angels with me, a male and two females. They were comforting and guiding me, and although we did not speak, I could hear their voices. They wanted me to come with them.

For a moment, I wanted to go with them. I had nothing to live for, no reason to continue my journey. But I couldn’t leave behind the family that loved me.

The next moment, breath filled my lungs.

As I became fully aware, the only certainty I could cling to when so much didn’t make sense was that God was with me…. The people around me didn’t know I existed, but God did. And I knew He existed.

When Martin had no connection to any person, and no person even knew that he was “there”, Martin was aware of his connection with God. So, he engaged God. He had no religious background, but he prayed, and God answered:

Sometimes my prayers were answered. Sometimes they weren’t. But when I felt disappointed and powerless, my conversations with God taught me that gratitude could sustain me. When the smallest prayer was answered, I gave thanks to the Lord. Caught in perhaps the most extreme isolation a person can experience, I grew ever closer to God.

Martin learned the value of being grateful. The kind of happiness we believe we have a right to experience was not even a hope for Martin. Without any connection to anyone other than God – without Bible, church, instruction or any thing else – he learned directly from God the value of gratefulness, and it sustained him… for 9 more years. For Martin, this gratitude came with the choice of engaging with God. He could have easily disengaged in anger and depression.

Martin eventually was able to convey to a sensitive and observant caretaker the fact that he was conscious and aware. That led to the discovery of a way for him to communicate through a computer. He eventually recovered some motor skills.

Through is new ability to communicate, he developed a long distant relationship with a friend of his sister. When she came to visit, the relationship developed further, and they eventually married! Martin continued to progress to the point where he was able to work; he went to college; and he now owns his own business.

It is a remarkable story, a story that led Martin to say that his face now hurts from smiling so much. His story poignantly highlights the crucial difference that God makes in our lives. Like Martin Pistorius, we can choose to engage God, or not. We can live our lives demanding a right to happiness, or we can simply learn to become grateful… even in the direst of circumstances.

Some might speak about human resilience, the human will to live and human ingenuity, which was the focus of the NPR story, but that focus completely misses the primary point: the reality of God and Martin’s relationship with God is the key to the story. The NPR story misses the significance that God showed up when there was no one else, and the decision to be grateful in those circumstances carried him through those dark times when happiness was beyond all hope.

It is hard to imagine being grateful in Martin’s condition. He was utterly dependent, and in that utter dependence, he had no illusions that he was in control. We may have more control of our lives than Martin had, but we ultimately have no control, whatsoever, over our own mortality (and likely very little control over everything else).

All that we have was created by God and is sustained by God. The more we have, however, the more we tend to think we control our own destiny. We may even begin to think that we have a right to happiness.

Strip all that away, and we learn that the more important thing is to understand our place in relationship to God is paramount. Happiness is fleeting, but gratitude can sustain us. Our eternal destiny hinges not on happiness, but on gratitude.


The excerpts are from Trapped Inside My Own Body for 12 Years by Martin Pistorius published in Christianity Today.


Postscript: for additional thoughts on gratitude:

6 thoughts on “The Right to Happiness and Gratitude

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