Happiness, work, and the eternal quest for meaning
Religion & Liberty Online

Happiness, work, and the eternal quest for meaning

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In my cautionary post on the constant temptation to indulge in earthbound economics, I mentioned that even seemingly noble, intangible features such as “happiness” can be just as futile and vain when pursued on our own terms and for our own limited purposes.

If we don’t order and define things properly, the “pursuit of happiness” can easily distract us away from our eternal quest for widespread spiritual transformation. As the author of Ecclesiastes points out, when “testing ourselves” with mere pleasure—even the pleasure of “toil”—all is ultimately “vanity and a striving after the wind.”

In an article for The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith offers some fascinating insights on this broader intersection of happiness and meaning, building initially off of psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl, who believed that “it is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

This is why some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness. In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors write…

…”Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need…

…Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning. Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future.

Now, the word “happiness” can certainly be elusive. For example, these particular researchers make some clear distinctions between “happiness” and “joy.” But setting all that aside for the moment, if we choose to assume this broader giver-taker paradigm that these authors put forth, things seem to nestle quite comfortably with Lester DeKoster’s discussion about work and meaning in a Christian context: “The work that places us in the service of others shares in the creation of civilization, the form in which others put themselves in our service. We get because we give—which lends meaning to giving.”

For DeKoster, “meaning is the answer to the ‘what fors’ of life’” (“Why work? Why play?”), and although meaning feeds into every sphere of our lives (family, religious and community activities, etc.), the bulk of our time is spent in work. “If work can give a central core of meaning to living,” writes DeKoster, “then all other meanings cluster around this one.”

In direct response to Smith’s article, Michael Kruse offers some helpful insights in this precise vein, discussing the unfortunate ways in which the modern-day church has begun to mirror these personal distractions toward self-indulgent happiness:

This is where the church does a great disservice. We form people into clients who look to the church as a route to personal happiness rather than as people who can discern meaning. And this is especially true for a theology of work and daily life. I perceive that the vast majority of Americans either see no meaning in their work as it relates to God’s mission in the world or they find great meaning it their work precisely because it is such an important component to achieving the happiness that comes from getting what we want.

For the most part, the church confirms that there is no meaning to daily work. Meaningful work, as it relates to God, is the stuff that happens within the four walls of the church or as an extension of some ecclesiastical initiative. Christian service is framed as an alternative to work-a-day life, an escape from meaningless work into meaningful work. Church leaders correctly perceive that many people see no meaning to their daily existence but the ecclesiastical impulse is to answer the question of meaning over and against daily life, not to find meaning within it…

…Until the church is willing to honestly wrestle with the meaning of work and daily life, the church will never have be an effective expression of the Kingdom of God.

Temporal notions of happiness will continue to compete with other earthbound temptations. In our individual callings, local churches, and daily, mundane work, we should be ever pressing toward a more successful integration–a whole-life discipleship offering a meaning that endures.

After all, if a meaning exists that “connects the past to the present to the future,” as these researchers point to, I have a hunch that the the Alpha and the Omega might have something to do with it.

For more on restoring a proper view of work and meaning, see Work: The Meaning of Your Life.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.