“I asked for wonders instead of happiness, Lord, and you gave them to me.”
--Abraham Joshua Heschel
I wished for the gift of happiness this past holiday season but instead, life gave me a much better gift: meaning.
Note: I am still absolutely happy about the panini maker my niece Emily gave me. It was exactly what I asked for and what I wanted. This January I’ll no doubt be happy for warm grilled cheese sandwiches on chilly nights. But it’s the meaning behind that gift I most cherish, what it represents and embodies for me. That I’ve been blessed to watch her grow up into an amazing young woman over so many Christmas mornings spent with family. That I am tied to her and she to me: by blood, by memory, by love. Year by year, decade after decade. Wasn’t she just the toddler whom I was reading a new book to, and now she is off to graduate school?
Meaning: to be oriented to something bigger in this life than self alone. Happiness: to seek to feel good. What gift do we most desire, wish for?
That’s a question many of us face in the New Year. How can we just be happier? What can we do, or not do, or change, for a happy 2017? Switch careers and get that new job. Lose weight and feel better about our appearance. Save more cash and then we’ll be happy. Make more money, attain a magic income level and happiness will kick in. We humans put a lot of spiritual and emotional energy into happiness, which makes sense, because happiness is the most important goal of life and is always just around the next corner. Right?
At least that’s what I’ve been told; what I’ve been sold on too.
Search on Amazon for a happiness self help book and we’ve got 96,821 results to choose from. “Find your bliss” a guru proclaims. If it feels good, do it. If a substance can make you feel happier, even temporarily, smoke it or drink it or pop it. We want our kids to be happy above all else, correct? “Happy, Happy, HAPPY!” one mega hit song blissfully proclaims. What the cure for the blues? Shopping of course, happiness found in a thing! Even our Declaration of Independence enshrines the pursuit of happiness as a citizen’s birthright and duty.
But might there be more to life, in life, than a quickly opened gift on Christmas morning? Less frenzied chasing after happiness. More intentional work to find true meaning.
To be a part of something bigger than ourselves, like a family that is both beautiful and broken and asks for hard work and commitment over the long haul. A faith that calls us to serve and sacrifice for others in the world, and not merely work for personal salvation alone. A job that’s difficult many days, but one which pushes us to deepen our skills and talents. Or life as a citizen that inspires us to embrace our mutual responsibilities more and our individual rights less.
I’m not promoting a life of anti-happiness, some dour Puritan existence, all toil, no fun. But here’s a lesson I’ve learned in my one life: while a singular pursuit of happiness rarely brings meaning, the pursuit of meaning almost always gifts us with happiness, and even better, a deep satisfaction and contentment that can last a lifetime, even beyond one lifetime.
I just can’t imagine showing up at the pearly gates after my death, and having Saint Peter ask me, “So John: were you happy?” No: instead I think, I hope, that I’ll instead be asked, “Did you live a life of meaning and purpose? Did you use the one life you were given for something greater than momentary happiness?”
To seek happiness. To seek meaning. In the year to come, may we choose wisely. May we choose well.