Finding Happiness in an Unhappy World

Adversity, affliction, pain, and suffering are a part of everyone’s life. With Satan and his evil minions causing problems, the problems we have due to the world being in a fallen state in the first place, the problems that others cause for us, and the problems we cause ourselves due to our own sin and ignorance, suffering is a given until Jesus sets up his kingdom. If we are going to live happy, joyful, productive lives, it is not going to be because we get rid of all affliction and suffering. Rather, it will be because we learn to be happy and joyful in spite of the pains of this life.

Who would not say, “I want to be happy”? Everyone desires this too often evasive feeling. It seems logical that if God created the world for people, and God is love (1 John 4:8b), that everyone would be happy, at least most of the time. Yet true happiness eludes most people, not just sometimes, but throughout most of their lives. Why?

Most people’s first response would be: “Because life is so hard, and there is so much pain and suffering.” It is true that hardship, pain, and suffering make it more difficult to be happy, and everyone will be unhappy at times. Ecclesiastes tells us that in every life there is “a time to weep” and “a time to mourn.” However, it also tells us that there is “a time to laugh” (Eccles. 3:4). If we are ever going to laugh from our heart, and be genuinely happy at least some of the time, there are some basic things that we must understand about happiness, chiefly that it is a by-product, not an end in itself.

Happiness is not something we can achieve by striving for it alone, nor by focusing on it as a goal. If that were the case, we could assume that since there are millions of people who want to be happy, at least some of them would have achieved it and told others how to achieve it too. If millions of people wanted to climb Mt. Everest, for example, many would make it. Why is it that people who strive for happiness are not happy? One of the main reasons is that happiness is a by-product of something else, something meaningful that a person does in his life.

Let us compare happiness to the ordinary housecat. Often, if you want it to come to you so you can hold it, it stays away, sometimes seemingly just out of reach. If you pursue it, it moves away (usually under a piece of furniture where you can see it but not reach it). Eventually you give up trying to hold the cat, and get about doing your work around the house. Shortly you feel something touching your ankle, and lo and behold, the cat, which stayed away when pursued, is now rubbing against your leg, wanting to be picked up.

Happiness is like that housecat. When we pursue it for its own sake, it remains out of reach. For example, many people are surprised to find out how little happiness material things bring. This is an area where our flesh tricks us. We should all know that possessions do not make people happy, because there are so many unhappy wealthy people who can buy whatever they want. As the common proverb says: “Money can’t buy happiness.” In spite of that, our flesh seems to say, “If I just had (whatever), I would be happy.” Although it can be momentarily satisfying to acquire what we thought would make us happy, the feeling does not last long.

Like the housecat, happiness comes when we engage in work and other activities that are meaningful to us. At those times our focus is not on ourselves or our own happiness, but on what we are doing. It is while we are engaged in a meaningful activity that we realize we are happy and enjoying life. Therefore, it is important for us to find meaning in life and the activities we engage in. This is often no small task. God designed life to have meaning, but many people do not find it, and live their lives the way the person who wrote Ecclesiastes started out.

Ecclesiastes 1:2
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

The book of Ecclesiastes contains the story of a person who calls himself “the Teacher,” and who outlines his journey to find meaning in life. He did many and varied things, looking for anything that held inherent meaning. He tried gaining knowledge and wisdom, but discovered “…with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (1:18b). He tried fun and laughter, but concluded it was foolish and accomplished nothing (2:1, 2). He tried wine and alcohol (2:3), accomplishing great tasks (2:4-7), amassing wealth (2:8), entertainment (2:8), and, of course, sex (2:8), but all to no avail. He did not know God, and therefore he correctly understood that his final end, no matter what he achieved or accomplished, was the grave, a hole in the ground, and that eventually he and his activities would be forgotten (2:16). In that light, nothing he did could be truly meaningful, because there was no actual purpose for anything he did. With nothing in life that was meaningful, he came to the point he “hated life” (2:17).

Thankfully, the teacher kept looking for meaning in life, and at some point he had a revelation that set him on the right course.

Ecclesiastes 2:25
for without him [God], who can eat or find enjoyment?

Amen! What the teacher discovered was that the first and most basic step to having meaning in one’s life was to realize that God created his life to have meaning. The dictionary definition of “meaning” is “a purpose or intention.” God intended to create us, that is, He had a purpose for us before we existed. Existence in and of itself does not have meaning, which is why atheists and people who believe that life is nothing more than a series of random “accidents,” cannot find true purpose or meaning. By their own definition, life has no meaning, i.e., no purpose or intention, it is just an accident.

Once the teacher discovered that God had created him with a purpose, a genuine meaning, he began to relate to life differently. He realized that it was not the works he did that had inherent meaning, but rather that it was his doing the work that had meaning. From that point of view, he began to realize that he could find happiness in productive work.

Ecclesiastes 2:24
A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God.

Notice that the teacher is not looking for happiness (satisfaction) on its own. No, he lives his life (“eats and drinks”), and works, and because he himself has meaning, he brings meaning to what he does, and gets satisfaction and happiness “in” his work. The same holds true for us. We bring the meaning to our work, and because God has created us the way we are, there is some work more meaningful to us than other work. As we engage life like that, thinking of ourselves and our work as having meaning, we find that we are content and happy, without seeking to be happy. This is the “housecat happiness” we discussed earlier.

It is important to make a distinction between happiness and joy. As we use the terms, “happiness” relates more to a feeling of gladness or contentment that is “outside in,” i.e., the meaningful and productive activities a person is doing produces a feeling of gladness, satisfaction, etc. “Joy,” on the other hand, is “inside out.” It is a fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22) that a person experiences as he endeavors to be like Christ and keeps in mind the hope that is in store for him. The hope of healthy bodies on a newly created and wonderful earth never changes, so no matter what a person is doing, or experiencing, he can have joy. It is important to understand that, though we cannot always be happy, we can always have joy. Often joy and happiness occur at the same time, and this is certainly very desirable.

Just as we can always have joy because our basis for it never varies, so too we should always be thankful. We have so much to be thankful for, in fact, the Bible commands us to be thankful (Col. 3:15b). [1] One of the keys to happiness is being thankful no matter what our circumstances are. Attitude has much to do with whether we are happy or not. Certainly there are times when circumstances in our lives make happiness at that moment out of the question. No one should expect to be happy all the time. However, it is not wrong to want as much happiness as possible.

As we look for meaning in our lives, it is helpful to realize that each Christian is uniquely equipped by God to do great things for Him and for other people. Corinthians tells us that each person is placed in the Body of Christ as God wants him to be.

1 Corinthians 12:18
But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.

Ephesians says that God has created each person for good works and we are to do whatever good works we can. God has made it possible for you to do good works here and now. In fact God has even prepared us for this.

Ephesians 2:10
For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

It may take an individual time and effort to discover things that are truly meaningful to him, but each of us can be assured that he has meaningful work with which he can be satisfied. Ecclesiastes calls the ability to find satisfaction in the work we do “the gift of God.”

Ecclesiastes 3:13
That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.

The tie between meaningful work and happiness, or satisfaction, is a major theme of Ecclesiastes, coming up many times, especially in the opening chapters. We live in a fallen world, one that requires hard work if we are to survive and prosper. God told that to Adam, and we should expect the same difficulties.

Genesis 3:17b and 19a
(17b) …Cursed is the ground because of you [Adam]; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
(19a) By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground….

Ever since the fall of man, life has been difficult, and this often makes it hard to be happy. We in the United States of America have so many laborsaving devices that we can be deluded into thinking that life should be easy. Older generations knew it wasn’t. “Not until after the War of 1812 did American terms like “easy” and “difficult” appear with any frequency; before that, most people expected life and its necessary tasks to be hard.” [2] Eventually we all discover that life is not easy, so we must be clear about the fact that we can be happy in our work whether it is easy or hard. Ecclesiastes was written long before automobiles, dishwashers, washing machines, running water, or other laborsaving devices, and it shows that people can be happy in their lives even if the work is hard, if it is meaningful to us. Ecclesiastes helps us understand this:

Ecclesiastes 5:18 (RSV)
Behold, what I have seen to be good and to be fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life which God has given him, for this is his lot.

The Revised Standard Version does a good job here of showing how God emphasizes that life on earth is going to involve a lot of hard work. The figure of speech Polyptoton is the repetition of the same word with the same meaning, but in a different case, mood, tense, degree, number, gender, etc. [3] In this case, the Polyptoton, “…toil with which one toils…” emphasizes the extreme toil that life entails. In spite of that toil, we see that it is possible, and even “fitting” to find enjoyment or happiness, in it. After all, God put mankind on this earth, and earthly life involves work, more work because of the Fall, to be sure, but even Adam and Eve had jobs to do. They had to tend the Garden of Eden, and guard it from the beasts of the field (Gen. 2:15). [4]

It is important that we do not see work as an obstacle, something satanic that somehow robs us of happiness. God designed us to work and derive happiness from, and during, our work. We can short-circuit our happiness if we view work as undesirable. The media and the world around us do a good job of making us think that work is something to be avoided. There are dozens of sayings and mind-pictures in our environment making it seem like work should be avoided at all costs. This is a trick of the Adversary, who knows that happiness is not an end in itself. He realizes that the more he can get people to focus on being happy, the less happy they will be. We Christians need to be clear on the fact that God created Adam and Eve with work to do, that there is fruitful work to be done now, and there will be work to do in the future kingdom. Seeing our purpose in life and thus bringing meaning to our work now is a great key to happiness.

That is not to say that one can be happy in every task. There are many things required of us that range from tedious to painful. It is important that we are willing to do whatever it takes to live godly lives. This can sometimes be easy, but it is usually difficult and time consuming. Everyone has hardship and suffering, and nothing we do can change that. No amount of prayer will reverse God’s declaration to Adam that he (and his descendants) would experience “painful toil.” No amount of money will buy happiness.

What can we do to have happier, more fulfilled lives? It all starts with developing a relationship with God that will bring meaning to our lives. We must also develop the fruit of the spirit known as joy, and learn to be thankful, focusing on the blessings of the Lord, which are so numerous. We must have a positive attitude about work, see it as something valuable, and as a blessing and a gift from God (Col. 3:23). As we bring meaning to our work, and work at fruitful tasks, we will find that even amidst adversity and hardship, we are happy much more of the time.

Endnotes

[1] In the Greek text, “be thankful” is in the imperative mood, and thus is a command.
[2] Stuart B. Flexner, Listening to America: An Illustrated History of Words and Phrases from Our Lively and Splendid Past (Simon and Shuster, New York, 1982), p. 153. Flexner covers such terms as “duck soup,” “a picnic,” “easy as pie,” etc.
[3] E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1968), p. 267-285.
[4] For a more detailed description of the work that God had for Adam and Eve, see our book, The Christian’s Hope: The Anchor of the Soul (Christian Educational Services, Indianapolis, IN, 2004), p. 118.

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