It is hard to be happy. It is harder to stay happy. That’s the nature of our nation’s obsession, “the pursuit of happiness.” It is like someone is always moving the goalposts. It is a pursuit dominated by frustration and a murky horizon that obscures the destination.
Now some people are more naturally happy than others. Happiness is influenced by many factors: personality, mental health, physical health, financial prosperity, family support, self-image, etc. The list is endless and that is my point. Even if you could align all the factors in your favor at a single moment of time, the next moment one of those factors will slip out of your grasp. It is exhausting trying to be happy! I have a better idea.
It isn’t my idea originally. The point was made in a class I am currently taking on suffering and healing. In our class text, Timothy Keller, summarizing the work of Victor Frankl, wrote in his book, Walking With God Through Pain (70):
The problem is that contemporary people think that life is all about finding happiness. We decide what conditions will make us happy and then we work to bring those conditions about. To live for happiness means that you are trying to get something out of life. But when suffering comes along, it takes the conditions for happiness away, and so suffering destroys all your reason to keep living. But to “live for meaning” means not that you try to get something out of life but rather that life expects something from us. In other words, you have meaning only when there is something in life more important than your own personal happiness and freedom, for which you are glad to sacrifice your happiness.
Living for meaning instead of happiness is a revolutionary idea! And meaning leads to something better than transient happiness; it leads to satisfaction. I believe satisfaction is closer to the biblical meaning of joy than our modern concept of happiness.
There is overlap between joy and happiness in that I believe when we live for meaning, and are deeply connecting to it, we experience a deep feeling of contentment, a rich and full happiness. We can then truly, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4).
You may protest that you do not know how to live for meaning. As a Christian, I can only live for meaning by pursuing the glory of God. If you are not a Christian, I wouldn’t know how to counsel you on finding ultimate meaning. I will say simply that we must all discover what is meaningful about our lives and orient our lives toward investing in that meaningfulness. This pursuit will be worth much more than “the pursuit of happiness.”
A quick note to those of you with chronic pain, my primary audience: Chronic pain can rob you of a lot things, a career, livelihood, mobility, security, even family. Meaning may inform what you do, but what you do is not what makes life meaningful. I fully believe that even the most bedridden sufferer can live a meaningful life.
How you pursue that is changed by the reality of chronic illness, but what makes your life meaningful is not. Your meaning has to transcend all of that. That’s why I can only make a case in finding our ultimate meaning in full-fledged pursuit of the glory of God!