It seems that everywhere you turn these days, people are searching for identity and fulfillment. Advertising tells us we can never be truly happy until we have (insert product here). Celebrities claim to have finally found peace and satisfaction in a certain relationship, lifestyle or social cause — until they get sick of it and they’re searching again two months later. And popular culture tells us the road to happiness comes from “being true to yourself” and “listening to your heart.”
How is this working out for us? Not too well, apparently. TIME.com reports on the results of a Harris poll in which the Happiness Index of Americans was rated a 31 out of 100 in 2016. Here’s how they got their results:
Harris Poll counts up the respondents who gave certain answers to nine different questions. Though one of those questions straightforwardly asks people to self-assess their own happiness, the other eight are ways to break down what might make a person happy or unhappy. In the end, the Happiness Index is an average of the percentages who responded with strong agreement with positive statements (about good relationships with friends and family, general health and spirituality, plus that general happiness question) and strong disagreement with negative statements (about money worries, feeling left out by politics, work frustration and lack of pastimes).
Why, in a country where we have so much, are so many people unhappy? Maybe we’re searching for fulfillment in the wrong places.
What We’re Really Longing For
God created us with longings and desires that can only be filled through a relationship with Him. Yet, so often we look to things of this world to find that identity and fulfillment. Instead of looking to God, we seek to satisfy our longings through career, money, pleasure, success, relationships, health, hobbies and so on. And there’s nothing wrong with any of these things — they are gifts from God and are awesome in the right context. But it’s easy to turn these gifts into idols and seek satisfaction in them instead of the One who gives them to us.
Another place we search for fulfillment is in the approval of others. Instead of finding our identity in God’s approval and what He says about us, we attempt to find it in what other people think and say about us. Take social media, for instance. We fish for likes and comments on our Facebook and Instagram posts, then scroll through our feeds and compare our normal lives with everyone else’s “highlight reels.” And our feelings are hurt because that certain someone didn’t “like” our post or comment. It’s a miserable way to live. No wonder so many people attempt to drown their sorrows in temporary highs from things like alcohol, drugs, sex, and Ben & Jerry’s.
Finding our identity and fulfillment in things of this world is a shaky foundation to base our lives upon. These things can be taken away at any moment. And in my experience, God will sometimes remove those things to teach us that only He can fill that void in our hearts.
The Good Life
In my first two years of high school, I was tall, skinny, and somewhat socially awkward. I didn’t really feel like I fit in with anyone. Some family members and others would tell me I was too skinny and needed to gain some weight. I played basketball, but I wasn’t that good and lacked confidence. Then, about the time I started my junior year, things started to change. The working out I was doing began to pay off, and I started to build muscle on my previously gangly frame. I became a better and more confident basketball player, and was named a team captain. Girls actually started to notice me, and people who had previously told me I was too skinny were now impressed by how muscular and fit I was becoming.
The approval I was suddenly receiving from other people felt good. I began to build my image around the size of my muscles, how many points I scored in basketball games, and compliments I received on my mediocre guitar playing. When I went to college, it only got worse. I would receive compliments from girls at the beach and the pool about my lean, muscular physique, so I continued to take pride in my body image. (Of course, I was too scared to actually talk to these girls, but it was a nice little boost for my fragile ego.) Despite the attention, I was insecure, afraid of failure, and worried about losing the acclaim that had come my way.
Hardship and Identity
Not long ago, I wrote about my chronic health problems, and how I became sick my senior year of college. Basically, God stripped away everything I had come to find my identity in apart from Him. I was no longer able to work out or play sports at all. My previously athletic body was reduced to skin and bones.
Since then, I haven’t been able to begin a career or engage in dating relationships, which is probably a blessing in some ways, because I most likely would have searched for fulfillment in those things as well. For much of my battle with chronic illness, I made healing into an idol, believing that I couldn’t be truly happy until I was healthy again. But I’m finally starting to get the message I believe God has been trying to teach me the whole time — that true identity, fulfillment, and, yes, happiness, are only found in Him.
In case you haven’t noticed, life isn’t a Hallmark movie. Things don’t always turn out the way we want. The girl you thought was “the one” marries the self-absorbed jerk instead. You interview for the dream job, but don’t get a call back. The miracle cure doesn’t always come at the last minute. If we are looking for fulfillment in things of this world, setbacks like this can be soul-crushing. But if we surrender our will and desires to God, and find our ultimate satisfaction and fulfillment in Him, we can withstand the trials of this life. And we can truly enjoy the gifts that He gives us instead of making idols out of them.