In preparation for a meeting last week, I watched a great TedxTalk about happiness (Shawn Anchor: The Happy Secret to Better Work). The speaker, Shawn Anchor, emphasized the upside down ways we are formed to relate to, but not really experience happiness. He cites time spent at Harvard University, where student applicants were incredibly excited to submit applications, but upon being accepted they experienced no more fulfillment than they had previously had.
The best I can understand, our society functions on the “carrot-dangling-just-off-the-front-of-the-treadmill” mentality. From a young age, we learn to set high goals (this is America, we can be anything we want) with the hope that we will work hard to achieve said goals. And, in many cases, we do. The problem is that empty feeling we experience just after we’ve achieved that goal.
No matter how much confetti, champagne, or fireworks accompany the magnificent feat, when we wake up the next morning we have to vacuum up the confetti and hand-wash the champagne flutes. Maybe we bask in the glory during those moments of cleanup, but after that, it’s on to the next goal. And so the cycle runs.
This isn’t revolutionary information, no one should be too surprised. Our educational system forms us to aspire toward that coveted “A.” I just spent three years in divinity school. A place full of people who should know abiding happiness, joy, fulfillment, fill in the blank, can’t be found on a transcript. But still I searched for it in those empty places.
I came to divinity school to do a ph.D after completing my m.Div. This meant my first year was full of studying and striving after grades good enough to impress my professors to write glowing recommendations. And I did alright at achieving most of the grades I wanted, but it wasn’t fulfilling and it wasn’t happiness.
The tests and papers felt like obstacles to be overcome, rather than opportunities to think through theological questions or wrestle with biblical texts. And then, during the summer after first year, I realized grades can’t fulfill or sustain. I didn’t stop trying to do quality work, but I did start enjoying life a lot more. I was more apt to take a longer lunch and enjoy later nights with good friends, instead of frantically working to impress a preceptor or professor.
I could never get completely out of the race for the A. Even when I said I didn’t care how well I did on a paper or exam, a feeling of not good enough would sweep through my mind if the number didn’t match my expectations. Maybe you’re not in school right now, so it’s not grades anymore. Maybe it’s a promotion, a raise, more money, a PR in your next race or lift, ________________.
Whatever it is, it’s not the end all be all for the people called Christians. The reading from John 14 yesterday comes to mind. Jesus, in his last hours with his disciples, doesn’t leave them with a strategic goal-planning meeting. Instead he says this: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27, NRSV). Now, before the theological, proof-texting, linguistic police bust down my door, I realize peace and happiness aren’t the same thing. I also realize dropping in a little Jesus isn’t going to fix everything.
These words do witness to a different way of being in the world, marked by peace rather than frantic striving. I’m not saying goals are bad or working to achieve them is a worthless endeavor (even if it is just a grade). Rather, those achievements don’t offer the abiding peace or happiness we might hope for.
How can the church offer a witness to this different way of being in the world? What practices shape the lives of people who are no longer striving as the world does? Sabbath comes to mind. Stepping out of the busyness of the world one day a week could be a start. Other than that I’ve got nothing right now, but it’s worth pondering.
What practices or disciplines do you have to find happiness apart from achievement?