“Find what makes you happy and do it.” “I just want to be happy.” “You just don’t seem happy lately.” We are obsessed with happiness. We’ve created some kind of artificial nobility by saying we don’t need fame and fortune or success or what have you–all we want is to be happy. It’s a refrain people particularly seem to apply in their twenties, a time of life when we make decisions that feel future-defining (whether they are or not). Happiness, however, isn’t our point in existing. It’s not the point of our lives. Our purpose is much greater.
A quick aside: there’s all sorts of ways people define happiness, some that make seeking it and nothing else seem more “ok” than others. I don’t want to get into semantics here, so I’m just going to say what I take “happiness” to mean is a personal state of positive feeling. Of course there’s nothing wrong with desiring what makes you feel happy, enjoying yourself, or wanting to be happy more often or not. Really, it’s quite the opposite–God created us with the capacities for enjoyment and placed us in a world He created with many opportunities for us to encounter fun, laughter, and that which makes us feel “happy.”
However, while the ability to be happy in moments is part of our design, happiness itself is not sustainable as an end goal. In other words, happiness isn’t a directive for life. There are many ways to think about this concept, but my thoughts about this seem to fall into two categories. When people say they “just want to be happy,” I have concerns for them personally… but I also have broader concerns about the manner of their attachment to this life. I’ve outlined both below.
- Happiness isn’t possible. I don’t mean to be depressing in saying that. Again, we might be happy at points, and should be grateful when we are. Still, the reality is life is complicated and happiness is fleeting. When we claim we are in a state of constant happiness, we are people in denial. If we are always aiming for happiness, we will never reach it; thus, by our own standards, we will live failed lives. (Don’t stop reading here–it will get better!)
- Seeking our own happiness is not how God has commanded us to live. There’s probably some happiness involved along the way, and that’s great, but happiness for the sake of happiness is not a life lived with value. Here’s the “famous” conversation between Jesus and the scribe in Mark 12 (verses 23-34):
- Scribe: “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
- Jesus: “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
- Scribe: “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
- Jesus (seeing that he answered wisely): “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
- Seeking earthly happiness suggests an over-attachment to earthly life. Wanting the most happiness one can attain from life implies this life is all there ever will be. In Matthew 6: 19-21, Jesus urges His listeners not to gather treasure for yourself on earth, but in heaven, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” While these verses directly address physical possessions, I think their message–that our heart will reside with what we value–applies to all we would seek to gain from this earth, whether or not we can physically hold it in our hands. If we treasure earthly happiness, our hearts are there, also.
- Seeking happiness for life also suggests an under-attachment to earthly life. If all we are looking out for is our own personal happiness, we neglect discovering the role God would have us to take on in engaging with His people and His creation. We will not always be here, but we are meant to be here in the time and place we are here. We are here for a purpose, and that purpose is not our own happiness.
I had a conversation with a friend about this the other day, and she asked, “If happiness isn’t the point, then what is?” I don’t think we can say exactly (if we could, why would we always be asking questions about life’s meaning?). But I do think our point has everything to do with those commandments I mentioned earlier–loving God and loving our neighbor. Part of loving God means seeking to please and honor Him, and we do that by engaging whatever it is He has meant us to do.
Essentially, there’s a distinction between happiness and passion. Finding and carrying out your passion means living what God has uniquely designed you to do. When we live out our passion, it resonates as good and right, and we can feel God’s pleasure in our finding it. Again, this probably involves happy moments, but passion is deep and intrinsic to who you are, unlike the external factors that sometimes incur happiness. Your passion connects with your very being, because it is who you have always been designed to be. Living it out is scary and painful (“passion” comes for the Latin for “suffering”), but it can also involve moments of delight and true joy.
I’m not pretending that living your life in this passion-driven way is easy or simple or even consistently fulfilling. Personally, I find living in denial pretty attractive sometimes (and wish I were more capable of it). But living in a denial that seeks pure personal happiness is not what God has commanded, not to mention it’s not healthy for you or those around you. I’d urge you not to compromise for a nebulous, unattainable happiness, and instead connect with the deepest and most beautiful part of life–becoming who God created you to be.
**I want to mention: the paragraph about distinguishing between happiness and passion is almost verbatim from my counselor. I somewhat playfully promised I would give him credit for that part… though, in all honesty, most of what you read on this blog stems from things I’ve learned from him and from our conversations. 🙂