What would it take to make you happy? Respondents to a survey several years ago settled on $10,000 as the amount that would solve their problems. “No doubt about it,” says Roy Waddle: “If I were handed $10,000 of happiness, life would turn out rosy. For about 10 minutes. That’s how long it would take for me to spend it all – for a new roof, a Greek isle cruise, a handful of charities, and the retirement kitty. Then it would be gone. And I’d return to daydreaming about the next $10,000.”
So what would it take to make you happy? Last evening people around the world shouted, “Happy New Year!” because deep down in our souls, happiness is the aspiration of every human being. We may not agree on what happiness is or on how to achieve it, but we all want it.
As Christians we possess the spiritual resources for happiness in any circumstances of life. Simply put, the Christian prescription for happiness is having a purposeful life, a meaningful life and a hopeful life. Let me explain.
Happiness is first having a purposeful life. Purpose provides direction. It gives us goals. It supplies our reason for existence, why we bother to get up in the morning and face another day. Purpose is having something to aim at, something to pursue, some cause to live for that is greater than us. To live a happy life, we need purpose.
Christianity claims that you and I are here on this earth for a purpose. We are not accidents of nature. We are not the products of blind chance. God has given us some specific work to do. We have a reason for being. Christians call this a vocation. Our primary vocation is to be in relationship with God. St. Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises put it very succinctly when he wrote about the foundation of the spiritual life: “Human beings are created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save their souls.” A more contemporary way of saying the same thing is articulated by Rick Warren, the author of the Purpose-Driven Life when he says: “You were made by God and for God, and until you understand that, life will never make sense.”
We are on this earth to be in relationship with God, but this necessarily means that we are also in relationship with our fellow human beings. Many of us have a vocation to be a parent or spouse – touching lives close to ours. But we also have other vocations. It may be to do some work in the community – to contribute to the common good by our employment, our participation in the church, or our involvement in civic affairs.
The Quaker theologian Parker Palmer wrote a marvelous book some years ago titled, The Courage to Teach. Teaching is a vocation, but so is being a plumber or electrician or lawyer or homemaker. Whatever your particular vocation, happiness is a matter of discerning God’s call in your life and then acting on it. You will never be happy in life until you are living out your God-given vocation.
When I was a third year law student in Philadelphia, I was having lunch with my rector, Frank Griswold. He asked my plans when I graduated law school, and I told him I was expecting to return to New York, take the Bar, and then practice labor or criminal law. He looked at me with disappointment in his eyes, and said, “Gary, I was hoping you would consider becoming a priest.” I was shocked at his suggestion. I had considered becoming a priest when I was a Roman Catholic, but put it out of my mind when I became an Anglican. Now, my own rector, the person I admired most in the church, was saying I had a vocation to ordained ministry. As I pondered Frank’s words over the next few months, it threw my life into confusion. When I returned to New York after graduation, I met another deeply spiritual priest, who led me down another road where Jesus became the central focus of my life. In the end, I obeyed the call, left law practice and embarked on divinity studies in Toronto. Now, thirty-two years later, I have to say I rarely regret my choice.
That’s vocation. It is God’s call for your life – your mission or reason for being – and it’s unique for each one of us. Happiness is having a purposeful life.
Happiness is also having a meaningful life. To have meaning is to make sense of our existence. Christians believe in a God of order. We who are made in the image of God need order to exist. None of us can survive in a purely chaotic world. No human being – and certainly no community – can exist in a state of sheer unpredictability. We need to make sense of our world if we are to live fully in the world.
The French existentialist Albert Camus once wrote that without a meaningful life, the great philosophical question becomes whether to commit suicide. A drastic statement, but it emphasizes that meaning is indispensable for authentic living.
Some of us may know the challenge of doing a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece separately makes no sense, but once we put the pieces together, we discover the meaning of the picture. The secret to doing a jigsaw puzzle is to discover the key that “unlocks” the meaning of the picture. The key allows us to connect the pieces together.
Now think of life as a jigsaw puzzle. It consists of a wonderful variety of parts. To connect those parts, to make sense of the parts, to get a picture of the whole, we need a key. Christians claim that Jesus is the key to life. In Jesus we get the whole picture rather than fragmented parts. In Jesus we make sense of our world, and therefore our lives. Of course, there will always be mystery in life – more questions than answers – or as T.S. Eliot put it, “we shall never cease our exploration.” Still, Jesus is the key that helps us make sense out of life.
So if you want a meaningful life, know Jesus, love Jesus, serve Jesus, enter into his life and follow in his way. A life that is worthwhile, a life that is meaningful is a Jesus-centered life.
Happiness is having a purposeful life. It is also having a meaningful life.
And lastly, happiness is having a hopeful life. By hopeful I mean that we can face the future with confidence that come what may, God is with us always and forever. None of us can predict the course of history, but we do know that at the end of history there is God. When all is said and done, God wins. Love wins. Life wins. Therefore, we Christians are not without hope – not just for the coming year but for eternity.
If we look at things in light of eternity, our perspective on life is bound to change. We can take greater risks for peace, bolder steps for justice. We can love more deeply, act more courageously and live more generously because we know that at the end of all things there is God. Things the world views as of ultimate importance, for the Christian take on a provisional character. Disappointments and setbacks, tragedy and failure never have the last word in our lives – God does. What matters – what ultimately matters – is not whether we live in our “dream house” or drive that luxury car or have more money than we could possibly spend. There has to be something more than temporal value, something that lasts when all the world’s treasures fade away.
Several years ago I read an article by Wells Lyman; the retired President of the San Diego Bar Association. He recounted being at the American Bar Association’s Annual Bar Leadership Conference in Chicago where a breakfast speaker kept saying,
“There will be a first time and a last time.” As the speech came to a conclusion, he said more emphatically, “You must remember, there will be a first time and a last time. There will be a first time you go to court and a last time. There will be a first time you see a friend and a last time. There will be a first time you sit with your family and have dinner and a last time.” Then he said, “If you know there is a first time and a last time for everything, it will change the way you think about everything.”
He’s right, of course. There will be a first time and a last time – that gives us perspective, doesn’t it? It helps us focus on what is important and what is not – on what matters and what doesn’t – on what I should cling to and what I should let go of.
This New Year, why not resolve to live a purposeful life by discerning your vocation – what God has called you to do in the limited time that you are on this earth. Why not resolve to live a meaningful life by viewing the world and everything in it through Jesus, who is himself the way, the truth and the life. Why not resolve to live a hopeful life, to face the future with faith rather than fear, because our final destiny is with God.
A purposeful life, a meaningful life and a hopeful life – take hold of these three things and you have the Christian prescription for happiness.
Happy New Year!
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.