My friend Jason and his wife are in their early forties. Four years ago they had three school-aged children when they adopted a 12 year old from the New Jersey foster care system. Understanding that their lives would be forever changed by the decision, they moved forward because they knew it was the right thing to do—they had an opportunity to change someone’s life and they couldn’t pass it up.
Today, life looks a lot different for them than it once did. The challenges of parenting a child who has experienced more than children should have to endure has stretched each person in the family in ways they never imagined.
As Jason and I shared a cup of coffee last week, I was curious how he’d narrate his family’s journey.
“Joshua, I’ve got to be honest—it’s hard,” he said during a moment of openness and vulnerability. “Some days at home are better than others, but there continue to be a lot of really rough moments.”
I listened and nodded while knowing deep in my heart I had no idea the depths of emotional and physical struggle their family has faced in recent years.
Jason continued, “You know what’s weird? Maybe the hardest part is everything I have been forced to confront about myself through all this: struggles I thought I had overcome in my life and lessons that I didn’t think I had left to learn. All my assumptions about what the perfect American life is supposed to look like have been challenged.”
A follow-up question came to mind—one that I struggled to ask because I did not want it to be misinterpreted by him in any way. I proceeded slowly, almost apologetically, to ask, “Jason, would you say that you are happier now?”
He set down his cup and looked off into the distance as if to clear his mind to ensure the words came out right. After a long, contemplative breath, he replied. “I am happier. But it’s hard to describe. I would say that I now have a deeper, richer view of happiness than I had before.”
Jason had discovered, the hard way, that a life that is deeply satisfying can look very different than the one he’d once expected.
“It’s kinda like I look back on my life before, how I measured happiness, and see that there’s this deeper level of joy in my life now,” he continued.
“Yeah, it would be great to have the newer car, or the house renovation, or the white picket fence and the picture-perfect family, but I think that kind of happiness is short-lived. Or at least happiness can look very different than that. I am experiencing a deep satisfaction and happiness because we know that this is what we were meant to do.”
Jason named something I have been trying to find the words to communicate for a long time: our deepest happiness in life stems from fulfilling purpose. Doing the best we can, where we are, with what we’ve been given is the best way to live a life of meaning and significance.
It’s how to be happy.
The Lie We’ve Been Fed
Jason’s experience of happiness flies in the face of what most people in Western society have been conditioned to believe about where happiness can be found. Retailers, advertisers, and marketers of every stripe have led us to believe that we’ll be happy with the next thing we attain. This is the underlying message of every advertising campaign—that we are not as happy or fulfilled as we would be with their product in our life. So we spend our time, energy, and resources on that which, in the long run, fails to satisfy.
An article in USA Today put a price tag on the American dream so many of us have been taught is our birthright. According to their calculations—counting house, car, necessities, simple luxuries, even savings and retirement—it costs $103,357/year to live the American dream.
I find this incredibly foolish. I’ve spent 90 percent of my life making less than half that dollar figure and have never felt deprived in any way. But even more telling and unfortunate to me is how the article’s writers defined the American Dream. To them, it requires a $275,000 house, a 4WD SUV, restaurants, entertainment, vacations, even a maxed-out 401k plan. This is how they define happiness—in material terms, and material terms only.
This is the message we are constantly fed.
As a result:
We continually seek happiness in the next purchase—clothing, phones, tech gadgets, cars, houses.
We continually seek happiness in the next job or a bigger paycheck—more prestige, more power, more satisfaction, more dollars.
We continually seek happiness in the next physical enhancement—tauter skin, slimmer figure, larger muscles.
We continually seek happiness in the next escape—clubs, television, vacations, addictions.
We continually seek happiness in the next relationship—the next woman or man who will meet our needs.
And while these pursuits may pay off for a moment of pleasure, they consistently fail to deliver lasting happiness. That’s why we constantly pursue more and more of them—but are never fully satisfied. You can never accumulate enough of that which will never make you happy.
Many of us are so busy chasing the next thing that we never pause to ask if what we’re after will truly satisfy. So we feel a pang of envy scrolling through our sister-in-law’s St. Thomas vacation photos. We may long for the leisure enjoyed by our neighbor, who retired at 55 and now plays golf every day. We might even quietly believe that the parents of our child’s friend are happier because of what they wear, where they live, and what they drive.
But when we pause from our scramble long enough to reflect, we notice that the folks who are “living the dream” aren’t as happy as we expected they might be. They are off chasing the next attainment just as feverishly as we are.
When we’re in our right minds, we recognize that lasting happiness must be found somewhere else than the pursuit of more perks and pleasures. My friend Sandra is someone who has been able to pause and name what makes her deeply satisfied.
Living to the Fullest
Sandra owns a popular local restaurant and employs teens to bus tables there. Sandra shared with me that a 17-year-old girl started working at the restaurant on a Mother’s Day, which was wildly busy. As the young employee was punching her timecard at the end of the day, Sandra asked her how she felt about her first day.
With an exhausted look on her face, the girl remarked, “I am so tired.”
Sandra, who’d also hustled throughout the day, added, “I know! Doesn’t it feel great?”
The young girl, clearly surprised by her boss’s comment, mustered, “Uh…I don’t know if that’s what I was going to say…”
Sandra laughed as she recounted the story to me, explaining, “There’s just this wonderful feeling to know that you’ve put your whole heart into something and lived your day to the fullest. That you didn’t waste it. You made the most of it!”
What Sandra was describing about work is also true in life. We experience meaning and satisfaction when we get to the end of the day, end of the year, end of the season, and know that we put everything we had into what we were doing. That we gave our all to something bigger than us.
That kind of meaning and purpose simply can’t be found among life’s more fleeting pleasures. Those things may add short moments of happiness and pleasure, but we experience the most authentic, longest-lasting happiness when we fulfill the role we’ve been called to live. We taste it, not as we strive to please ourselves, but as we offer the benefit we’re designed to provide in the world.
If you know what your purpose is, that’s great. If you don’t, let me suggest one simple step you can take today. Who is one person in your life who needs what you can offer? A child, a co-worker, a friend, or maybe a customer at your business? What benefit can you bring into that person’s world today?
This—living a life not for ourselves but for others—is at the root of that deeper happiness we were each made for. And the big win is that it’s not available only to the privileged few!
A 15-year-old girl who hosts a fundraiser to help orphaned children find families can experience authentic happiness.
A woman who cares for an ailing parent can enjoy knowing that she is doing the most with what she has.
A man with a Ph.D. who’s just completed drug rehab and is working at Home Depot can choose happiness by serving others on the job.
The parent who can’t afford to take his family to Disneyland can use his vacation days to build a Habitat for Humanity home with his teenage son.
Experiencing satisfaction by doing the best we can, right where we are, with what we’ve been given is going to look different for each person. The mom of a colicky newborn might count it a win to get to the end of the day having only broken down in tears twice. The retired financial consultant might help a struggling nonprofit stay afloat financially. A father who coaches his daughter’s Little League team after work might spend two extra hours a week with a boy who’s never known his father.
You can tackle what is in front of you today with confidence that as you purpose to benefit others where you are, with what you’ve been given, you can enjoy meaning and satisfaction.
When Happiness Doesn’t Look Like What You Expected
Because selfless living, in service to others, is what we’re made for, we can even experience happiness when life doesn’t turn out the way we thought it might.
Helen was working as a pediatric nurse when a newborn with special needs was abandoned at the hospital where she worked. Helen and her husband, a respected attorney and leader in their community, decided to adopt this little girl. Six months later, Helen’s husband died unexpectedly, leaving her to raise two teenage daughters and an infant with special needs all on her own.
That was 10 years ago.
By no stretch of the imagination is anyone who is searching for happiness going to look at Helen’s family and aspire to walk the road they’ve traveled. Honestly, there’s no earthly reason why Helen should be happy. She doesn’t check any of the boxes that our culture has used to measure success.
And yet today she experiences a kind of satisfaction in life that most of us only dream about. It’s not based on the size of her house, the model of her car, or the cash available in her savings account. It is a happiness based on something far greater and built on realities that can never perish, spoil, or fade. She has done the best she can with the one life she’s been given. And when she lays her head down on the pillow each night, she can feel fully satisfied with the life she has lived that day.
I don’t believe finding deep happiness is ever a walk in the park. It doesn’t always look like the images we see in ads or even a stress-free life. Not every day is cheerful bliss. Sometimes happiness is hard and messy. Sometimes it feels like achy legs or sheer exhaustion.
Sometimes a life that is deeply satisfying looks very different than the one we thought we were promised.
Income can’t determine our happiness.
Life’s unavoidable losses can’t determine our happiness.
Illness can’t determine our happiness.
Unexpected challenges, ones that we never imagined when we were dreaming the dreams for our lives, can’t determine our happiness.
Even relationships, ultimately, cannot determine our happiness.
Lasting satisfaction can be ours only when we invest our life into those things that are worthy of the one life we’ve been given.
If you’re weary of chasing after pleasures that fail to satisfy, and itching to experience a deeper satisfaction in life, let these three thoughts be your guide:
First, dig in right where you are. Care for the people in your kitchen. Your swing set. Your carpool. Your neighborhood. Your soccer field.
Second, use what you have. Do you enjoy cooking? Do you interact with people in your day job? Can you do simple home repairs? Use the opportunities and gifts you’ve already been given.
Third, benefit others. Though our natural instinct is to please ourselves, open your eyes to those around you who might be in need. How can you do good for the people in your orbit—neighbors, strangers, people who speak a language other than English, children without parents, folks who look different than you?
Tackle what is in front of you with confidence as you purpose to benefit others where you are, with what you’ve been given. You will find joy and lasting meaning in it.
You will discover happiness.
The preceding article was originally published in Simplify Magazine where I regularly contribute longer-form articles.