From a young age, we’re led to believe that success will make us happy. Success will bring us a spouse, money, comfort, a home, stuff to fill that home, and the ability to take nice vacations. How often as a child did we see the phrase “happily ever after” flash across the screen?
The poor orphan goes on an adventure and becomes the king or queen of the land, or becomes a great hero in battle. It’s the idea that if we just sit around and go about our mundane lives, eventually adventure and rewards will come knocking at our door. Only then can we truly be happy, for just beyond where we are is the place of bliss, contentment, and ease.
This idea, which has been embraced by so many people, gets reinforced as we’re indoctrinated to focus on the externals of life. Yet we tend to forget that these external things aren’t always within our control.
We think the reason we’re unhappy is that we don’t have the things we want—the perfect job, the ideal spouse, or more money in the bank. Regardless of what our “white whale” might be, we find ourselves thinking, “If only I had ________, my life would be better.” We idealize the perfect life and attribute our own unhappiness to our failure to possess it.
For some, it’s the white picket fence and the nuclear family. For others, it’s a mansion filled with staff to cook and clean for them. There are those who long to live in the forest, by a lake, or up on a mountain. Each person has an ideal of what their perfect happy life would look like, and they engineer their life to reach those dreams.
I watched my wife buy into these ideals as she followed the script of working hard to achieve the things that all earthly standards testify to as success. I marveled as she became a partner in a successful business with a contract to buy it out completely.
I had married my best friend from high school, who was (and still is) a loving, kind, and attentive spouse. Through our combined efforts, we became financially secure at a young age, thanks to our diligence and many sacrifices. We also regularly attended our church as card-carrying members. I was a member of the church financial council and coauthored the church’s weekly home group curriculum. Later I founded Conway Christian Resources and published my first book, Understanding Who You Are: A Survey of 21st Century Beliefs.
From the outside, life looked great, but deep inside something was missing. Success didn’t equal satisfaction. We found what many others have discovered: that the hard work put in to achieve our dream rewarded us with only more hard work. There wasn’t much more happiness in our lives, but only more responsibility and less time to do the things that actually made us happy.
When Succeeding Isn’t Success
The success we’re taught from a young age to strive toward is something external. And being external, it’s only temporary. That new car will rust out, fall apart, and end up one day in a wrecking yard. That new job title will eventually go to someone else, if the company even survives that long. That nest egg will eventually get spent, and the gains erode as they’re taxed into oblivion.
All these things we work toward either degrade, disappear, or become valueless. But at the same time, all these things tell us (and those around us) that we’re successful, that we’ve achieved and arrived at a higher and better level of existence.
How will I know if I’ve succeeded if I can’t have things others are unable to possess? How will people around me know that I’m superior and successful unless they can recognize it half a mile away?
It’s the idea that “the person with the most stuff wins,” so by definition shouldn’t that person be the happiest of them all? In reality, those with the most stuff can be the most miserable, because they constantly fear losing all they have. They’re unable to enjoy it and be happy, because around every corner is someone looking to become happy at their expense by taking what they have.
On the other hand, there are those who feel that they haven’t succeeded, and they spend their time grumbling and complaining that the grass isn’t as green for them as it is for others. They look at the lush, well-manicured lawns of the successful and believe the lie that they’d be happier if their lawn looked like that. Once again, it’s the externals that are used to tell us and others if we’re happy or not.
“The greener the grass, the happier the life” is the idea accepted by many, but at no point do they question why the grass is greener. Maybe it’s because the successful person hires someone to make it like that, because they’re so busy they could never do it on their own. Or it could be that the other person actually put in the time and effort to make it look that way. Those who grumble and complain about their grass tend to be those who are unwilling to put in the work to make it better.
I remember when I moved into a house with three lilac bushes on the property. They were in rough shape and hadn’t produced flowers for several years. I had three choices. I could leave them as they were and hope for the best, I could cut them down, or I could put in some effort and fix them. It took two years of pruning, fertilizing, watering, and managing, but finally those bushes sprouted their lilacs for the first time in years.
Did this bring a sense of accomplishment? Yes. Did it make the yard look better? Yes. Did it make me happy? No. I was glad that my effort brought about a good result, but it didn’t change how I felt on the inside. To top it off, the summer that the lilacs finally bloomed was also the same summer that we moved across the country. After all the hours of work I put in, the benefits were to be enjoyed by another family.
There has to be more to life than houses, cars, and landscaping, but if these aren’t the keys to happiness, what is? Since trying to solve the matters of happiness with the external wasn’t the answer, my wife looked inwardly. She turned to self-help books, having been reading them since she was a teenager.
It wasn’t because something was wrong, but in response to her aching for more. There was something missing, and yet the books couldn’t create inner peace or transform their information into joy. Any fix was only temporary relief, a distraction from the emptiness and the gnawing feeling that in the midst of a fairy tale existence, something was still missing.
Inside, there’s a cry—and not only in myself, because I’ve heard that cry everywhere: “I know I was made for more.” It’s the feeling of unfulfilled purpose. It weighs on my heart and leaves me unsatisfied. Stuff doesn’t satisfy it, information doesn’t satisfy it. Neither do titles, success, or the praises of others.
The Vanity of Vanity
What can you do when you’ve done everything right and found it lacking? This is what we and many other people have found out about life. Even Solomon dedicated the book of Ecclesiastes to this idea. The things we can buy at a store cannot make us happy over the long-term. We see that everything either fades away or forces us to pursue something else.
This is what’s referred to as vanity, where we have a high view of something or ourselves, but in the end it’s useless. It’s like dressing up a salmon in a top hat and a coat while calling it Lord Sebastian the Salmon, Ruler of All in the River. It doesn’t matter; you wasted your money, and no matter how that salmon was dressed up, it still ends up in an oven with some lemon and seasoning sprinkled over it.
Solomon was the richest man in the land, but still felt hollow. He eventually drifted away from God and into idolatry. He had gold, silver, wisdom, and women, but each of those things on their own couldn’t produce happiness, joy, or purpose in life. Instead, these things got in the way of his true purpose and brought about dark consequences which shadowed his nation for generations.
So what then can we do? Should we give up material success and possessions in pursuit of the spiritual? Many have tried this and failed. The idea of shunning everything made of matter was the source of many troubles for the church, and it did nothing to fill the void. If we were all to abandon what we have and hide out in a cave seeking enlightenment, we would actually be ill-equipped to meet the needs of the church and the world around us.
On the other end of the spectrum, what if we gave up the spiritual in pursuit of greater success? Again this leaves us off balance and without any type of lasting joy.
Many things we consider to be the finishing line are nothing more than tools to be used to get us to the actual finishing line. Money can be good if it’s used correctly. Possessions can be helpful and enjoyed if we understand their place in our lives. A career can be good if it’s balanced with the rest of our lives. Vanity comes when these things or anything else takes control of our lives, or we find ourselves in an endless chase for the next big thing to achieve or buy.
I routinely find myself looking at what I have and wondering if any of it is worth it. All the time and effort that went into earning money so these things can sit on my shelf and get dusty. The same goes for my music hobby. I know spending money on a guitar pedal won’t make me happy, but it sounds good. At other times I think everything’s just a giant waste, and I regret spending the money rather than saving it where it could grow (unless the stock market has something to say about it).
Do I enjoy my hobbies? Yes, most of the time, but they cannot make me truly happy. Instead, they help occupy the time, sometimes to avoid life and other times to just unwind from it. No matter how I feel, all those things will either break down, get sold (or given away), or thrown in the trash. All that expectation, research, and the purchasing and using of those things will eventually bring about a day where it doesn’t matter anymore.
This isn’t meant to be a depressing look at our lives, but what’s being shown here is a picture that most people don’t like to look at. The reality is this: Deep down, what we hold dear and see as valuable will inevitably control our thoughts, desires, and time. If we place more value on money than on people, then our lives will reflect that. If we put more value on achievement than on family, our lives will reflect that. If we put more value on being entertained than on true joy, our lives will follow that course like a sailboat on a river.
Appreciation gets lost when we look for the greenest grass or biggest house. I had a friend who was quite well off financially, and when he encountered new people trying to be his friend, he would test them. It wasn’t something big or grand; he would give them a penny (or a nickel), and see how they reacted. If they were grateful and thankful, he invested time and friendship into them, because they weren’t driven by his bank account. If they tossed the penny aside, or complained or asked for more, he cut them out of his life. He was looking for people who valued him more than his money, or what he could do for them.
Why Am I Still Not Happy?
We see then that being happy doesn’t automatically come from things, position, pride, or gold. It comes from something deeper which cannot be bought. This has to do with what we perceive to be important and whether or not we can be appreciative of whatever we have at the time.
We see that many people turn to the wrong things to try and answer the question, “Can I be happy?” We turn to entertainment, sex, drugs, music, meditation, exercise, isolation, shopping, food, and a host of other things to try and coax some happiness out of this life. Happiness is fleeting and subject to so many variables. It’s also incredibly picky, and thrives on unrealistic expectations.
Wanting to be happy is only part of the equation, along with understanding our purpose and looking for something that goes beyond our natural lives. The truth is that we cannot buy this happiness because we can’t afford the price of it. No one can, because happiness doesn’t overcome life, and the two are most often at odds with each other.
Understanding this conflict of expectation versus reality, we can start to come to terms with our lives and what to expect out of them. No longer should we continue to live according to “happily ever after”; rather, we should be hoping that our life can be summed up by the phrase “joy everlasting.” There’s something greater at work here, and how we can get to that place is determined by what kind of person we are.
Can I Truly Be Happy? Cameron Conway is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.