Thursday, August 31, 2006

Laboring to Be Happy

On this Labor Day weekend I am preaching on the biblical perspective of work, and that has caused me to ponder how many people actively dislike their work or, at the least, view it with weary resignation and/or exasperation. Some polls indicate that as many as seven out of ten Americans are dissatisfied with their job and dread going to work. And that’s just from a poll of preachers! Seriously, a 2006 survey of 1,733 executives asked the question, “If you could start your career over in a completely different field, would you?” 51% said yes, 24% said maybe, and only 25% said no. This is, in my opinion, a little sad. But I’m not buying it completely. You see, I’d say that most of these findings aren’t about peoples’ jobs, per se, but about their happiness in general.

The Jewish author and commentator Dennis Prager spent ten years pondering the subject of happiness, talking to thousands of people via his talk radio show and speaking engagements, and finally wrote a book about it called “Happiness is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual.” The first two chapter titles alone issue a serious challenge and prompt our reflection. First, “Happiness is a Moral Obligation” (Prager goes further with religious people and says it is a spiritual obligation). There is a sense in which part of “loving our neighbor,” most notably our immediate family, includes not foisting our perpetually miserable disposition on them. He asks religious people to consider what statement it makes about their God that they are characteristically unhappy. Clearly it contradicts many of the very faith claims upon which our religious beliefs rest.

Second, “Unhappiness is Easy, Happiness Takes Work.” Prager’s experience listening to callers (every Friday one hour of his show is called the “Happiness Hour”) is that peoples’ self-described level of happiness bears virtually no relation to their external circumstances. And thus the sentiment that “I’d be happier if things were different” just doesn’t hold up to real life in most instances (immediate tragedy and loss notwithstanding, of course). Let me state it very plainly: unhappiness in various shades is the default human disposition, especially in a country where despite having by far the highest living standard of any people in history we are constantly told how much more we should strive for so we can “have it all.”

So when I hear about how unhappy many people are with their work, I take it with a grain of salt. I think it’s easy to succumb to the “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome, particularly with jobs. “If you had to do it over again would you choose a different line of work?” “Yeah, why not? It’s fun to let my imagination run wild with all the different possibilities and assume they would all bring me more happiness than I’m experiencing now.”

Craig Brian Larson, a Christian minister and editor, puts it this way: “All my jobs have shaped me… I have come to the conclusion that work, along with family relationships and suffering (which are synonymous for some), is one of the fundamental chisels by which God shapes us into his image and prepares us for the age to come. Work addresses character, issues of faithfulness, responsibility, diligence, submission to authority, and obedience. It requires us to depend on God for wisdom to overcome problems and strength to overcome fatigue.”

If you can’t stand your work then you have two choices: change your work or change your perspective (the third option, being miserable, should be off the table). A good perspective to cultivate is to see our work as an opportunity for God to shape us and for us to serve God. The Bible calls that being “blessed.” Happy Labor Day. And may we labor in happiness.


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