Rethink Happiness

Sarah Cunningham | October 29, 2013

The first days of a new ministry or project are often the equivalent of a honeymoon.

We are smitten with our cause, and we can only imagine that because it is so important to us, other people will find it worthwhile too.

Eventually though, when some of the initial bliss subsides, low moments inevitably arrive when volunteers don’t line up around the block to do the work or when millionaires don’t show up on our doorsteps to bankroll our projects.

Then there’s that day when you’ve been up until 2 a.m. working and you realize you’ve been pouring everything—your life, your time, your emotion—into your heart’s work and yet, the world’s problems barrel on, barely dented by your sacrifice or exhaustion.

Understandably, this can lead to some unhappy moments.

While I’d love to suggest you can avoid disappointing moments along the way, that’s just not the case. If you’re invested in a cause for any length of time, it’s not “if” hardship or challenges will come, but a “when”.

I’d like to offer one small insight that might help frame those challenges and help you keep your sanity in those moments. And that’s this: Our goal is not synonymous with happiness. As we trudge uphill, championing faith and shrugging off opposition, our mission informs us. It beats long with our hearts, I must stop oppression. I must find a way to meet these needs. I must get the funding. I must, I must, I must.

These mantras push us forward in adversity, inspiring us, allowing us to reach new depths and heights.

But often, over time, the goal changes . . . ever so slightly. So slightly we might not notice it. We tack on one smaller addendum.

It goes something like this:

I’ll only be happy if . . . I am able to stop oppression.

I’ll never be satisfied unless . . . I am able to meet these objectives.

Slowly, almost unintentionally, we begin to identify our goal with contentment and a happy life. We begin to think that our goals are the same thing as happiness.

While it is true our goals will hopefully bring about good for many others and that will make us feel good, it’s important to distinguish them from happiness.

Here are 4 Ideas for Separating Our Well Being From Our Goals

1. Try not to draw happiness from approval.

If we only let ourselves feel good when someone approves of us, it gives them the authority to make us feel bad when they disapprove as well. As follows, we feel terrible in the moments when no one claps, when the room falls silent, when others dismiss us. If we want to dethrone our critics then, we have to first give up our own love for basking in the applause.

2. Refuse to measure worth or success by the amount of attention you receive.

Our culture that has so many ways of measuring success—web traffic, book sales, Facebook likes, retweets, church size, media coverage and so on. This can feed the illusion that we achieve most when we’re turning the most heads. Really? Is that how we measure success? We’re turning heads? So is the accident on the side of the road! And that is nothing to be celebrated. The crowd is not the validator of ideas. The crowd chose to send Jesus to the cross and free Barrabas.

3. Remember that you are not responsible for all needs everywhere.

You have high hopes for those you serve, but you cannot take responsibility for their total development. Instead of unrealistically hoping for quick transformation of every area of a person’s life, ask yourself, Are they better off than the day I met them? Do they know more about Jesus than they did before? Do they exhibit more kindness, more self control, more purpose? We aren’t responsible for the fate of the planet or for every decision those we serve make in the future. We’re responsible for what we do with the opportunities we have.

4. When things don’t go perfectly or you make mistakes, remind yourself that God desires to bless you regardless of circumstance.

Sometimes we become anxious that in our distractedness, we might miss God’s will altogether. But I don’t buy that God ascribes to that kind of do-or-die mentality. He can make a second chance— forged from your successes and failures—so productive, so enriching, that it’s as if the first chance never existed. He can make your left turn take you to exactly here a right turn would’ve taken you. God can insert the backup plan right over the original and weld them together. He sees potential and opportunity to bless in any place you put your foot.

So here is a Challenge:

I challenge you, then, to join me in rediscovering a God who has not strapped a burden on our backs; a God who wants us—not just someday but on this day--to BE HAPPY.

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This article was modified from content found in Sarah Cunningham’s new book, The Well Balanced World Changer: A Field Guide for Staying Sane While Doing Good (Moody, October 2013).

Sarah is an author, idea junkie and Chief Servant to a four year old Emperor and his one year old Chief of Staff. She does freelance work organizing conferences and supporting publishers while drinking chai in Michigan. Her most recent book, The Well Balanced World Changer: A Field Guide To Staying Sane While Doing Good, is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold. You can also find great shareable content at her book's Pinterest page or contribute your own life lessons on social media using the hashtag #worldchangerbook.

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