Recently, I listened to The Happiness Lab, a podcast hosted by Yale Professor of Psychology, Dr. Laurie Santos, that explores the psychology of happiness and what makes a good life. In the season one episode entitled “A Silver Lining,” Dr. Santos discusses research regarding the happiness of Olympic medalists with their respective medals1. As we might expect, gold medalists are the happiest with their accomplishments. But what I found surprising was that silver medalists tend to be less happy with their medals than bronze medalists. Video review of silver medalists from the 1992 Barcelona, 2004 Athens, and other Olympics noted that the facial expressions of silver medalists more often revealed sadness, anger, and disgust.
What is happening here? These silver medal athletes have just accomplished a remarkable performance and have proven that they are some of the best in the world in their chosen sport. Why are they so unhappy?
Dr. Santos revealed a cognitive bias with which we all suffer called a referential bias2. She explains that our happiness is not so much associated with the absolute value of our circumstances (i.e. the gold medal is better than the silver, which is better than the bronze), but is rather strongly correlated to our reference points. For example, Dr. Santos asks, “Would you rather work at a company where you earn $50,000 annually, or at a company where you earn $100,000.” The answer is that it depends on your reference point! If we compare our salary levels relative to those of our colleagues, we may be more happy working for $50,000 if everyone around us earns only $25,000, whereas we would be less happy with the $100,000 if everyone else earns $200,0003.
Silver medalists are unhappy with their medals because they are making a psychological error – they are evaluating their accomplishments in terms of what might have been rather than what is. Their imagined reality is a much stronger motivator than their actual reality4. Bronze medalists, in contrast, are happier with their medal because they are looking down at all the people who did not beat them and they are imagining an alternative reality of not getting a medal at all!
A very familiar Proverb from Scripture says, “Wisdom begins with fear and respect for the Lord” (Proverbs 9:10a, ERV International Edition). While I have heard this proverb throughout my life, it has often left me wondering what fear of the Lord has to do with wisdom. How are they related? I believe the relationship has to do with our reference point. Proverbs 8 narrates life and creation from a personified Wisdom’s point of view. Wisdom says that she was present with the Lord in the beginning when he created the world. She says:
I was there when he laid the foundations of the earth.
I was like a child by his side.
I made him happy every day,
and I was always glad to be with him.
I was so pleased with the world he made
and enjoyed the people he put there. (Proverbs 8:29b-31)
From the very beginning, Wisdom existed in a joyful, almost playful and childlike, delight in her relationship with God and his creative work. These verses reveal a beautiful reality of the world around us and of human nature in particular. That reality is so often shadowed by the darkness and brokenness we experience in our world and even in our own hearts. But these shadows do not invalidate the purposes of God from the beginning: there is a wisdom embedded within creation, a wisdom that sustains a flourishing life for humans created to enjoy relationships with their Creator and each other forever5. Listen to Wisdom’s words:
“Now, children, listen to me.
If you do what I tell you, you will enjoy blessings.
Listen to my teaching and be wise;
don’t ignore what I say.
Those who watch for me at my door,
waiting for a chance to listen to me,
will enjoy great blessings.
Those who find me find life,
and the LORD will be pleased with them.
But those who reject me are hurting themselves.
Whoever hates me loves death.” (Proverbs 8:32-36)
Such Old Testament wisdom literature was a rich source of reflection for the first-century church on the person and work of Jesus Christ6. In fact, the Gospel of John begins by identifying Jesus as the Word of God, an expression used throughout the Old Testament to refer to God’s actions in creation, revelation, and deliverance7. John uses language very similar to that used by Wisdom in Proverbs 8 to describe Jesus as the Word:
In the beginning, before the earth was made,
the Word was there.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was there with God in the beginning.
Everything was made through him.
Nothing in all God’s creation was made without him.
In him there was life,
and that life was the light for the people of the world.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not defeated it. (John 1:1-5)
In other words, Jesus Christ has become the ultimate reference point for all of life, creation, and redemption! To know Jesus and to honor him with our whole lives is to know the wisdom that brings life and defeats the darkness. When King Jesus is our reference point, we can take all that life throws at us and contextualize it within the mysterious, yet eternally good, purposes of God.
But the shadows of this world are long and we often lose sight of the presence of Christ in our world. We are barraged right and left with messages that scream at us about alternative vision(s) of human flourishing: what images of ourselves we should put forward, what values we should follow, to what or whom we should give our full allegiance, what people we should include or exclude, what is fair or unfair, or what priorities we should embrace. But is this the same vision of flourishing embodied by the Kingdom of God as presented in the Scripture?
By consistently engaging with the Bible, we rehearse the reality of Christ’s kingdom day-by-day so that we do not lose sight of it as we walk this dark world. Through the Scriptures, we are reminded every day about the earth-changing, seismic shift that has occurred in the cosmos because of the life, death, and resurrection Jesus Christ. We allow the Holy Spirit to speak through the Scriptures to refresh our imaginations with a Gospel vision of a world that God intends to remake through the supremacy, love, and eternal reign of our King Jesus8. And we are encouraged to continue to follow him because we also “were raised from death with Christ” and so we “live for what is in heaven, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1).
This does not make little of the pain and suffering that we so often experience. On this side of eternity, we may never know the reasons for the difficulties we face or the injustices we suffer. There will be unanswered questions that rattle our faith about the presence of a loving God and leave us stranded on life’s byways waiting for mercy to help us make sense of the anomalies that rob our hearts of peace. But as James encourages:
We must rehearse this reality through engagement with the Scriptures so that Jesus becomes and remains our ultimate point of reference for all things in life. This is where wisdom begins. And from here, everything that happens to us in life becomes caught up in the good purposes of our good God. We will walk in the way of wisdom, the same wisdom that delighted in the God of creation and redemption from the very beginning. The pathways we walk, while sometimes difficult, will move us forward to the flourishing life God intends for us and all creation in the end.
1Dr. Laurie Santos, “The Silver Lining,” podcast audio, September 30, 2019. https://www.happinesslab.fm/season-1-episodes/a-silver-lining
5Glenn Pemberton, A Life that is Good: The Message of Proverbs in a World Wanting Wisdom (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018) p. 93-94.
6David A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts: Methods & Ministry Formation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 418.
7Ibid. p. 419.
8Graham Joseph Smith, Salt, Light, and a City: Conformation – Ecclesiology for the Global Missional Community, Vol. 2 Majority World Voices 2nd Ed. (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2020), p. 162-166.