Are Christians less happy than non-believers? What would you say to a person who searched for happiness far and wide but is still not satisfied with life?
In this interview, we talk about these and other topics around happiness, wellbeing and faith with Dr Andrew Parnham, creator of The Happiness Course and author of “Lasting Happiness“.
This is part 2 of the interview with Dr Andrew Parnham. Read also part 1 about everyday happiness and happiness during lockdown.
You have created The Happiness Course and wrote “The Lasting Happiness”. Are you the happiest person in the world?
Laugh… I’m probably not but I am definitely an optimistic person and I have certainly learnt a lot about happiness, wellbeing and psychological processes linked to them while writing the course and the book. For example, the knowledge helped me to recognise patterns that I carried from childhood to adulthood, like the avoidance pattern when facing an emotional pressure.
I’ve also learnt a lot about attachment theory, positive psychology and Martin Seligman’s three dimensions of happiness and his research on gratitude. I’ve learnt how we develop patterns from the earliest moments of our life and what we think about ourselves because of how we were treated when we were little.
Looking for fresh ways of processing, thinking, reflecting and embracing, what Christians are often suspicious of – science, psychology and therapy, and integrating them into my faith has made a huge difference.
All this has helped me to reflect on my own childhood and to understand the kind of person I am.
If you were to base your happiness on only one thing, what would it be?
It would be the relational aspect of life.
My theology is a relational theology. I understand that God is a set of relationships, He’s a community. The God who brought us all into being is a person. Our meaning is derived from and is a response to a person who Himself is a set of relationships. Because we’re made in the image of God, we’re at our best when we’re a community. That to me is the heart of existence – it’s not loads of material assets but it’s about relationships.
If you want to be happy, have healthy relationships.
How did your exploration lead to creating The Happiness Course?
When I was leading a church in Brockley in South East London some years ago, we developed an initiative called “Healthy Brockley”. During that time a mental health professional joined the church and she shared with me what positive psychology was about.
We were aiming as a church to develop a holistic and missional approach to our community. So a number of things came together at that point. We started asking questions about what’s the true success about, what makes life meaningful and related topics.
As Christians, we often limit our scope solely to spiritual matters. So, when people ask us questions, we’re often quick to go to the response, ‘The answer is Jesus – what’s the question?’ But people’s initial questions are more often about (un)happiness, relationships and meaning, before they get to discussing “religion”. We should perhaps start by answering the questions they are asking before we get onto the more explicit dimensions of the Gospel.”
I wanted to stop and listen to people, teach in a holistic way and look at scientific explanations which people are more inclined to listen to.
If you want to be happy, have healthy relationships.Dr Andrew Parnham
In the course Jesus doesn’t even get a mention, does he?
No, he doesn’t. We talk about the fact that faith is one of the things that helps us to be happy but it doesn’t get any more mention than that.
However, when we reach the part of the course which is about relationships and we then talk about forgiveness, meaning, identity and purpose, people start thinking a bit deeper. Some start to explore the idea of God and faith. We ask the questions, the participants do the hard work by answering them. Not for our benefit but their own.
There was a retired woman on one of the courses. She told me she never thought she could forgive somebody. She said she had never heard of ways in which you could actually forgive someone, so to hear things she did on the course was a revelation to her.
Many Christians are, at least, familiar with the idea of forgiveness, even if they don’t practice it, whereas a number of non-Christian people see it differently.
The course is there to facilitate people’s journey. I’ve seen people moving towards Jesus and faith on this course – they might not engage with the gospel in its definitive form at that stage but they start moving in the right direction.
What are some of the things that people say after the course?
In the evaluation forms and in conversations people talk about eye-opening moments and moments of revelation they had on the course. They say they hadn’t realised that some of these things are important and that you can be happy in a straight-forward way.
What they talk about can be grouped into three categories: relationships, the past and the future. Some of the things they say are: I had no idea how important the relationships are; it’s helped me to think about what forgiveness is, how I treat people, what I can do to nurture the relationships; looking back on the past – people say that the course has helped them to review their past and it’s helped them to look at their life; it’s helped me to see the times that were important; the course is a bit like an MOT – assessing what’s going on here and how they can react to that going forward.
Have any stories stood out to you in particular over the years?
There was a man, probably in his 50s. His wife had left him many years before and he came really broken to the course. But when he got to the five steps to forgiveness, he said it turned him upside down. One of these steps is to empathise with the person who caused you pain and he said that when he got to that point, it changed his whole attitude.
Another man was recovering from various addictions. When he got to the session about relationships and forgiveness, he said it was revolutionary for him.
When you have conversations with the participants after the official part of the course, what do people say?
Sometimes they ask about my own convictions. I don’t necessarily tell them I’m a Christian during the course, because it’s not an explicitly Christian course, but they might ask me afterwards and then I openly talk about it.
Once, during a session in which I asked a lot of questions, a participant asked me what my answers to those questions were. I invited him to come and talk to me afterwards. Although he didn’t stay after the session finished, but another group of people beckoned me over and asked me what my views were. Since the course was now over, I felt free to tell them that to me there are three most important questions in life – who am I, why am I here and what shall I do. Then, I told him that for me, as a Christian, my identity is a child of God; therefore that gives me a purpose and a destiny.
The best way to lead the course is to step back and get the people to self-reflect. What I find very often is that I don’t need to say much – it’s about letting people talk and let those light bulb moments happen. I’m not necessarily aiming for people to be converted at the end of the course but I hope it will prompt them to start a journey. In the hands of people who run it, it can be a really powerful tool to get people talking about those important things that we Christians often struggle to initiate.
Some people question the idea of the course. Some Christians say that this emphasis on happiness is trivial and what is really needed is a deep Christian joy. To that I answer, with a smile, that with some Christians that joy is so deep that is very hard to find.
Would you say that non-Christians are happier than Christians?
There is a lot misery in the church but scientifically, Christians are happier. Research I’ve come across says that people of faith live happier lives. This happens across the world and there are reasons for it. Church gives people an opportunity for social interactions, sense of belonging, community, a sense of meaning and purpose, explanation when you get problems in life and teaches pro social behaviours.
My experience from working in churches and leading a church for a significant amount of time is that yes, Christians are happier. They live more satisfied lives; they’re more in touch with healthy living, including good relationships and forgiveness. I think that as Christians we often put ourselves down but we have a lot to offer.
Do you think we’re not sharing our joy enough?
Absolutely. We often don’t approach people holistically. Therefore, we’re not good at engaging with people. We’re also often not aware of the richness – the breadth and depth – of our own message. We’re not even aware of our strengths as a church – like community.
As Christians we often take things for granted. We do know a lot about meaning of life while a lot of people around us are very confused and would love someone to guide them towards the answers. We have an amazing resource to give to people, as long as we don’t bash them on their head with it, do more listening than speaking and journey with them.
Who would you say the course is for?
Generally, it is for adults but I have also run it for teenagers over 15. Our longing for happiness is universal so the course is really for anybody. And I’ve run it for all different kinds of people – all ages, background, classes, countries and races.
If you want happiness, success, healthy relationships and meaning in your life, then you qualify.
You go through the course and you live happily ever after?
The course consists of only four main sessions and sometimes an additional one. So it’s relatively short. It will work best if it takes place in a community where relationships can form and people can pick up things from the course and chat through them over coffee.
There is also a follow up course – “Happiness. The Next steps”, for those who would like to explore the topic further. There are also other courses I’ve put together, among them “Deeper” which is about spirituality and happiness at work.
There is a lot misery in the church but scientifically, Christians are happier and there are good reasons for it.Dr Andrew Parnham
If someone came to you and said they’ve done the course, they’d read your book, they’d tried some other things but they were still not finding meaning and happiness, what would you say to them?
I would ask them some questions, e.g. what have they done so far, what they’ve read, what do they think the important questions are. I would ask them whom they’re connected to, whom they’re journeying with, what they are doing in life, what are their important and meaningful moments.
Sometimes people want us to tell them the answers but that’s not a very good solution. Jesus challenged some people to do something e.g. to go and sell their possession and give the money to the poor, but more often he asked questions – why did you say that or what are you going to do.
People struggle with not knowing. There’s a social pressure telling us that we need to get somewhere, achieve something, and get to a destination. It makes us ‘doing-people’ more than ‘being-people’. But actually just being somewhere in between, not knowing, and being on the journey is part of life.