The founders of the United States understood the pursuit of happiness to be a fundamental right. But just because we have that freedom for that pursuit, doesn’t mean we’re always good at it. There’s no question that we are passionate about happiness and will go through great lengths to get it, yet the pursuit of happiness remains as elusive as ever.
Here’s the problem: We were never meant to go chasing after happiness itself. That’s when we end up missing it. Addicts on a very simplistic level, understand this, and in one sense, we can all identify. We might not have sacrificed family, possessions or a career for a chemical dependency, but we nevertheless know what it’s like to go after the (false) promise of instant happiness, even at the expense of what we value. Too often, the pursuit of happiness leaves us empty, in spite of our best intentions.
Perhaps what’s most destructive is when this pursuit comes at the expense of relationships. As the parent of young children, I see this destruction play out on a smaller scale with my kids. When my son fights with his cousin over a truck, he is fighting for what he thinks will make him happy. And yet, he doesn’t realize that his cousin is far more important than the truck.
Here’s what I’m trying to live out (and hopefully teach my kids someday): Forget pursuing happiness, pursue relationships instead. The deeper, more significant the relationship, the more potential for fulfillment and satisfaction.
There are studies that make this point. The World Happiness Report 2015 observes that the biggest factors for happiness both individually and nationally are social. Interestingly, Latin American countries, which traditionally have strong social structures, have placed highest in Gallup’s most recent happiness surveys. Other studies have shown that while there are factors beyond our control which affect our happiness, the relational aspects of our life, namely family and community, are among the most significant factors that we can control.
And we actually know this to be true intuitively. This is why our culture is filled with stories that point to this reality. The workaholic who turns his back on his career in order to salvage his relationship with his family (Elf, The Family Man). The athlete who realizes that as important as winning is, the bond he has built with his teammates is more valuable (Remember the Titans, Hardball). The band of warriors who unite in fellowship against a singular, evil enemy (The Lord of the Rings). We’ve seen it all before, and yet we watch it again and again, because this is what we want for our lives. What good is it to gain the whole world, and yet find ourselves utterly alone?
Of course, the challenge is that relationships are not predictable. They can be messy and risky. They require effort. They can result in pain and hurt. And so, we are tempted by the alternatives. After all, it’s far easier to enjoy the false intimacy of a Tinder hookup than to work at a lifelong marriage. A prescription drug is much easier to control than a stubborn child. And a video game can provide plenty of adventure, without any of the expense of going out with friends. We live in a world that is all too eager to capitalize on our willingness to sacrifice relationships, by offering safer, cheaper, easier, but inferior substitutes.
Deep, significant relationships never fall into our laps. Relationships are all around us, but we can’t take them for granted. We will have to be intentional. We will have to sacrifice. We will have to forgive. And we cannot pursue relationships as a means to an end. To do so will only frustrate the entire thing. Rather, building meaningful relationships is at the heart of why we exist. The relationship itself is the treasure.
As we finish out the holiday season, what would it look like for you to pursue relationships, rather than all the alternatives? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Give gifts that promote relationship—vacations, dance classes, board games, etc.
- Volunteer at a local nursing home or homeless shelter or participate in an Angel Tree program (and invite someone to come and volunteer with you)
- Handwrite a letter to your parents or an older relative and share with them about what’s going on in your life
- Send a nice text to a friend who’s wronged you
- Invite your neighbors over for dinner
- Host a Saturday morning pancake brunch for other dads and kids so that the wives can go out for a peaceful brunch together
- Read a good book with a friend and meet up over lunch to talk about it
- Organize a toy/meal/clothes/etc swap with some friends and invite a few people you don’t know well to be a part of that
- Work through that Netflix series you’ve been wanting to watch with a friend
- Get involved in a neighborhood association, local church, or some other community organization
- Share with your kids about your favorite childhood holiday memories and stories
In other words, whatever you do (shopping, cooking, movies, video games, etc.), don’t do it alone! Think of ways to invite others to join you. It turns out that the challenge of happiness is not so much external, but internal, as we combat our isolating, self-centered tendencies, and seek to give ourselves to others. When we do so, we discover that happiness is not anything we can control (it’s far too precious for that). Rather, true happiness will be something that we receive with gratitude, indistinguishable from the relationships we are blessed with.