We all dream of being happy. If we could just lose the extra weight, get the job, buy the house, we could truly be happy. But over time, it begins to seem as though lasting happiness is unattainable. Despite our best efforts, true happiness will never be a reality for us. So how do we find lasting happiness and contentment in our lives? Maybe the answer isn’t in our own lives at all.
Matt Miofsky connects the existential question, “Am I happy?”, with basic theology and unexpected biblical texts. Starting with the book of Ecclesiastes, considering if any "thing" can make us happy, he explores the value of relationships, a forgiving lifestyle, living in the present, feeling gratitude, and learning to release control.
Additional components for a four-week study include a comprehensive Leader Guide and a DVD featuring author and pastor Matt Miofsky.
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About the Author
Matt Miofsky is the Lead Pastor of The Gathering United Methodist Church in Saint Louis, Missouri. Matt gained a degree in Advanced Math and played football at Washington University and then attended Candler School of Theology. Matt lives with his family in Saint Louis and has previously published two small group studies based on his sermon series, Happy? and Fail.
Read an Excerpt
What It Is and How to Find It
By Matt Miofsky
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2017 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
NOTHING WILL MAKE YOU HAPPY
All of us want to be happy. But what does that really mean? What is happiness? Where do we find it? How do we keep it?
First, let me clarify something. I'm not talking about temporary feelings. We all have good days and bad days. We're happy sometimes. We're sad sometimes. I'm talking about something deeper and longer-lasting — an abiding peace, satisfaction, purpose, and joy that for many of us seems elusive.
Second, you can find thousands of books, blogs, YouTube videos, lectures, and podcasts about happiness. In fact, when I run into people and mention this topic, almost every one of them says, "Have you read this book?" or "Did you see this study?" We aren't just going to regurgitate popular wisdom on happiness; we will see what the Bible has to say on the subject. And as we saw in the introduction — the Bible says a lot about happiness.
But before we get to scripture, let's start with science and a study on the subject. Dr. Robert Waldinger, a Harvard doctor and researcher, leads the longest and most comprehensive study on happiness ever conducted. Called the Harvard Study of Adult Development, researchers in 1938 began studying and following 238 Harvard undergraduates, measuring a dizzying number of life factors ranging from physical to psychological to financial. Their aim was as simple as it was ambitious: to figure out what actually makes people happy. Waldinger is the fourth leader to follow these men (they later added women) from the time they were young to the time they were old, testing and verifying what made them happy versus what they thought might make them happy. You see, each generation speculates on what will bring happiness, and this generation is no different. We all have life goals. For example, Dr. Waldinger writes:
There was a recent survey of Millennials asking them what their most important life goals were. And over 80% said that a major life goal for them was to get rich. And another 50% of those same young adults said that another major life goal was to become famous. And we're constantly told to lean into work, to push harder, and achieve more. We're given the impression that these are the things that we need to go after in order to have a good life.
What's cool is that the study doesn't tell us just what makes for lasting happiness; it tells us what doesn't. So, in the study, how do people's goals work out? Seventy-five years later, have they brought happiness? If they could go back and do it again, would they do anything differently? We will see at the end of the chapter, but before we get there, let me talk about a different study, this one conducted a little further back in time.
A Study Called Ecclesiastes
Believe it or not, nearly three thousand years before the Harvard study, another guy did a similar study. But he didn't study other people; he studied himself. He tried a bunch of different things to see what would make him happy. Then when he was done, he wrote down his findings in a book. The book is called Ecclesiastes, and it is now part of the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament.
The rough meaning of Ecclesiastes, originally translated from the Hebrew, is "Teacher." The book is about a man (the Teacher) who decides to conduct a lifelong experiment on happiness and meaning. Now, tradition tells us that the Teacher is King Solomon of the Old Testament. In fact, one legend is that he wrote Song of Solomon as a young man (a book of love poetry), Proverbs as a middle-aged man (a practical and efficient book of wisdom), and he wrote Ecclesiastes as an old man, reflecting on all that he had learned about life. We don't know his identity for certain, but for our purposes let's call him Solomon.
Ecclesiastes is a memoir of sorts. It is the story of Solomon's journey. He set out to learn what life was all about and what made him happy. As with the Harvard experiment, Solomon's approach was to dispel the myths, those things we chase that don't lead to lasting happiness.
Let's survey the Book of Ecclesiastes and, as we might do with any scientific study, we'll look at some of Solomon's hypotheses, findings, and conclusions. After each conclusion, I'll make some comments of my own.
If I find meaningful work, that will give me lasting happiness.
I hated the things I worked so hard for here under the sun, because I will have to leave them to someone who comes after me. And who knows whether that one will be wise or foolish? Either way, that person will have control over the results of all my hard work and wisdom here under the sun. That too is pointless. ... I mean, What do people get for all their hard work and struggles under the sun? All their days are pain, and their work is aggravation; even at night, their hearts don't find rest. This too is pointless.
(Ecclesiastes 2:18-19, 22-23)
Work cannot make you happy because one day it ends, and when it does, no one remembers and no one cares.
Reading these findings may be tough for some of us. That's because our generation puts a lot of stock in our jobs. I get it. Which one of us doesn't want a job that's fulfilling and joyful? If we're going to spend forty, fifty, sixty hours a week doing something, don't we want our work to make us happy? That stands to reason. And yet Solomon tells us that work, even if it's meaningful, is not the key to lasting happiness. He says it may be a component of happiness, but it's not something that leads to lasting happiness, and he tells us the reason.
Work eventually ends. It is temporary and that means that one day, you will not have it. If you've invested everything you have in your job, if it has been your primary driver of meaning, purpose, and contentment, and then it ends, what happens? Solomon found that when work goes away so will your happiness.
A man in our congregation told me about his experience seeking happiness through work. He was a successful person who had achieved a lot, liked his job, and found a great deal of meaning in it. Then he retired, and all of a sudden he had to figure out a new identity. He told me that one of the most discouraging times was when he went back to the company to visit. He walked down the halls, and there were people who hadn't worked there before, and they had no idea who he was. Many of the projects that he had worked on so hard had been set aside, and people were doing new things. When he got to the place that used to be his office, he saw that all they had done was slide out his name and slide in somebody else's. It all kept going, just without him. It wasn't just that his work had ended, but very quickly people began moving on, new hires didn't remember, and all the stress, anxiety, and long hours seemed forgotten. Maybe you know that feeling.
It's not that work doesn't contribute to our happiness; it does. But even in noble jobs, we grow weary. What Solomon is saying is that work, even meaningful work, doesn't make for lasting happiness.
Accumulating "stuff" can make us happy: money, possessions, achievements, power.
The money lover isn't satisfied with money; neither is the lover of wealth satisfied with income. This too is pointless. When good things flow, so do those who consume them. But what do owners benefit from such goods, except to feast their eyes on them? ... Just as they came from their mother's womb naked, naked they'll return, ending up just like they started. All their hard work produces nothing — nothing they can take with them.
(Ecclesiastes 5:10-11, 15)
We can accumulate possessions, but they don't benefit us, and we can't take them with us. As for achievements, we can't accomplish enough to satisfy the longing for something more. And no matter how great we are, there is always someone better.
Accumulating money, possessions, achievements, power — all these goals involve the same basic problem. We think if we can just get that next thing — whether it's another dollar or another achievement or another rung on the ladder — then that will make us happy. But Solomon says it won't. He tells us, "When good things flow, so do those who consume them." In other words, as soon as you get the thing that you thought you wanted, guess what happens? Your appetite grows and you want something else. And then as soon as you get that next thing, guess what happens? Once again your appetite grows and you want something else. And so the cycle continues.
I call this the hamster wheel effect. You know what I'm talking about, right? I make $30,000 a year now. If I just made $40,000, things would be so much easier. But when I make $40,000, all of a sudden I discover that if I just made $5,000 more, things would be that much better. So on and so forth.
We do that with money all the time. But it's true about other things, too. We do that with houses and apartments. If I just had two bedrooms, or three bedrooms, or fifteen hundred square feet, or two thousand square feet. But every time we get what we think will satisfy us, we discover that our appetite grows and we could use more.
It's also true of intangibles. Maybe you're an overachiever. Maybe you're a perfectionist. A lot of us are like that. We tend to see life as a game or a competition, and so we have to be better than other people. Whether it's money or a house or an award, or even just how great our family is, we think that if we can achieve that next thing, somehow we'll be happy.
By the way, this is where the Facebook effect comes in. Researchers have shown pretty convincingly that Facebook fuels our sense of competition with one another, because we tend to post great things — the beautiful picture of our kids, the cool vacation we went on. Every time we see those things on someone else's Facebook page, they make us feel that we need to catch up. If I could have what they have, then maybe I would be happy.
But you know what? It doesn't work. Listen. It really doesn't work.
Solomon discovered what many of us find when we're looking for the accumulation of anything — money, possessions, achievements. If we expect those things to provide us with lasting happiness, we will be disappointed.
Life isn't about winning some game. In fact, there is no game. There is no winner. There is no prize at the end. Accumulation does not lead to lasting happiness.
I'll seek pleasure. Surely that will make me happy.
I said to myself, Come, I will make you experience pleasure; enjoy what is good! Butthis too was pointless! Merriment, I thought, is madness; pleasure, of no use at all. I tried cheering myself with wine and by embracing folly — with wisdom still guiding me — until I might see what is really worth doing in the few days that human beings have under heaven. ... I refrained from nothing that my eyes desired.
(Ecclesiastes 2:1-3, 10a)
There aren't enough parties in the world, people to sleep with, or bottles of wine to cover up the longing we feel.
Seeking pleasure is an easy philosophy to buy into. I've often called this the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll approach. It's essentially an escapist strategy, and it doesn't work either.
People say, "I'm just going to do what makes me happy." In other words, whatever feels good and right in the moment, that's what I'm going to do. It sounds so simple — how could we go wrong if we just do what we think will make us happy? But we end up being held hostage to our feelings, so that over the course of a lifetime we're all over the map. Our lives are fragmented, because we've done whatever we thought would make us feel good in that moment on that day. And those feelings are fickle, they change, and often what feels good one night, leaves us feeling the exact opposite the following morning.
I love what Bertrand Russell said about this in The Conquest of Happines. Russell was a twentieth-century mathematician, philosopher, and atheist. He wrote about drunkenness being atemporary suicide. This could also be said about having casual sex, getting high, or engaging in any other self-destructive behavior. Those things don't lead to happiness. All they do is give you temporary respite from your unhappiness. It's not lasting.
The Journey to Meaning
The experiments that Solomon described in Ecclesiastes went on. They included novelty, experiences, wisdom, even religion (not faith but religion, many of you who have gone through the motions of church know what I mean). None of these made him happy or gave him meaning. Everything he tried ended in the same place: futility. He began to think the search was hopeless, that life had no meaning at all.
But along the way, something happened to Solomon. The journey began to change him. He decided, most likely late in life, to write down his search and share with others what he had discovered about the meaning of life. His writings are honest, authentic, raw, disturbing, and beautiful. He does not sugarcoat his experiences or offer easy answers. He does not tie everything up neatly at the end or pretend the quest has ended. Instead, he offers us a glimpse into what, with God's guidance, was revealed to him during his search. And ever since that time, people have been wrestling with, arguing about, and finding hope in his story.
For generations the book of Ecclesiastes has been passed down through religious communities and ultimately to us today. It's surprising to see that very little about the search for happiness has changed. Today there are so many of us who want to figure out what life is all about. We're desperately looking for meaning and want to discover something in life that is significant and lasting. We want lives that are more than a blip on the cosmic radar screen. We want to contribute to something bigger than ourselves. We want to make an impact and leave our mark on the world. We want to be happy — truly happy.
In the end, we want our lives to matter and to live with no regrets. As I talk to people, especially young people, I discover a fear that they will come to the end of their journeys with missed opportunities, dead ends, and regrets.
It's a legitimate fear, as Solomon teaches in Ecclesiastes. Too many of us drift through this life, passing on opportunities and procrastinating on possibilities, only to find out that we missed the very thing we had been looking for. The Book of Ecclesiastes wakes us up to the importance of questions about meaning and happiness, and about the journey that such questions provoke. For that reason, I find it to be refreshingly relevant and important for us today.
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon shared what he had learned about the search for happiness, and he also issued some warnings along the way. In his honest appraisal, he cautioned us that much of what we think about happiness may in fact be flawed. Let's take a look at Solomon's warnings.
Life Is Futile
I often hear stories of people who find they are closest to God when they are out in nature. The majesty of a mountaintop view, the simple beauty of a flower, the refreshing rains that renew springtime plants — all these have led people to deep reflections on the greatness of God.
If you've ever caught moments of the holy through your interaction with God's creation, then it probably comes as no surprise that Solomon begins Ecclesiastes with a reflection on his observation of nature. But it doesn't take long to realize that, for Solomon, nature inspires not a sense of God's greatness, but a sense of life's futility.
What do people gain from all the hard work that they work so hard at under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains as it always has.
The sun rises, the sun sets; it returns panting to the place where it dawns.
The wind blows to the south, goes around to the north; around and around blows the wind; the wind returns to its rounds again.
All streams flow to the sea, but the sea is never full; to the place where the rivers flow, there they continue to flow.
All words are tiring; no one is able to speak. The eye isn't satisfied with seeing, neither is the ear filled up by hearing. (Ecclesiastes 1:3-8)
As his words indicate, Solomon sees in nature a metaphor for life, but it isn't one of grandeur or inspiration. Rather, watching nature makes him tired!
It reminds me of the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. The movie's premise is as simple as it is profound. Murray's character, Phil, finds himself waking up each morning to discover that he is reliving February 2. Each day, no one but Phil remembers what had happened during the previous version of the day. At first, Phil sees this as a license to indulge in whatever behavior he wants without ever having to deal with consequences. Why worry about it, since the next morning he will wake up and relive the same day all over again? Soon, though, his initial excitement wears off. The constant repetition of the same day — the same events, the same outcomes — begins to turn Phil toward despondency and despair. What is life's meaning if it doesn't go anywhere, if every day is full of activity without any progress?
Excerpted from Happy? by Matt Miofsky. Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Nothing Will Make You Happy 19
2 The Art of Forgiveness 45
3 Beyond Circumstances 77
4 A Way of Being 103