We are exploring four dead ends; four common ideas for what happiness is so that we can arrive at a biblically grounded understanding of meaningful happiness. In our last episode we considered the idea that happiness is found through wealth. In this episode, we’ll explore the idea that happiness is found in success.
It is widely thought, as evidenced by our actions, if not our words, that success in life brings happiness. If we get that promotion, or find the perfect job, or win that award, then we’ll have arrived, then we’ll be happy. We are going to talk about success as happiness today.
As we begin today, I want to offer a more philosophically grounded story for why our conception of the good life changed so drastically. To explain, I’ll utilize the idea of “moral ecologies” as discussed by the NT Times columnist David Brooks in his book The Second Mountain .
Brooks begins by noting that every culture has what he calls a moral ecology. A moral ecology is a cultures system of beliefs, values, emotional response patters, social imagery, and behavioral patters that “subtly guide how you dress, how you talk, what you admire and disdain, and how you define your ultimate purpose” .
Prior to 1960, the culture’s moral ecology in American could be described communally in the idea that “We’re all in this together” . But around 1960s with the sexual and cultural revolution, people began to think about their lives more in terms of the individual than in terms of the group. So, instead of “We’re all in this together.” The new moral ecology from 1960 on can be summarized by the phrase “I’m free to be myself” . This is the rise of the individual and the idea of individual expressionism that functioned as a kind of “emancipation narrative,” according to Brooks.
While this new moral ecology, along with its focus on freedom and individuality did and does have positive consequences (Brooks notes that Silicon Valley would never have happened in the old moral ecology), there are a number of ideas that together, have led to this idea that success brings happiness. Brooks lists five :
- The buffered self. The fundamental unit of being in modern society is the individual. This prioritizes individual choice and maximum freedom, along with a minimalistic ethic: As long as I don’t harm you, I can do anything I want.
- The God within. The idea is that the goal in life is self-fulfillment or self-actualization. I need to be true to my inner self; I answer to my own heart and no one else.
- The privatization of meaning: We come up with our own values and our own meaning in life; we are maximally free to invest meaning in anything.
- The dream of total freedom. The best life is the freest life.
- The centrality of accomplishment. In this hyper-individualistic world, people are measured by what they have achieved in life. Status, admiration, and being loved follow personal achievement, not the other way around.
If we add all of these factors up, it is no longer difficult to see why people today think that success and achievement will bring happiness. It is the air we breathe.
Does success or achievement bring happiness?
While many pursue success as a means to happiness, a moments reflection helps us see that success is not happiness. If we aim at success, we’ll become what David Brooks calls in his book The Second Mountain an “insecure overachiever”  He says that our constant striving “encourages [us] to drift into a life that society loves but which [we] don’t” . And he concludes, “It’s impossible to feel wholehearted” if we think that personal success will satisfy our hearts deepest longings for meaningful happiness. It may be, as we’ll see below, an ingredient of meaningful happiness, but it is not the thing that will make us happy.
How should we think about work, success, and calling?
We want to unpack three basic ideas found in James K. A. Smith’s book You are What you Love in order to think about the question of success.
First, it is important to remember that according to the doctrine of creation, creation is a gift that calls and invites us to take up our place and do the work for which we were created. As Smith puts it, the doctrine of creation is not just a theory about the metaphysics of the world, it is also “a manifesto” it is “marching orders”, it is a “commission” .
Second, this commission to take up our vocations can be summarized with three verbs: image, unfold, and occupy .
- Image: humans alone image God. This is not just a noun, rather it is also a verb—we have been given a distinctive task to rule and reign as co-regents of God. We have been called to make culture.
- Unfold: we are called to “unfold creation’s potential”  In Genesis 1:28-30 were are tasks to (1) be fruitful and multiply (2) to cultivate the earth, and (3) to have dominion over creation. As Smith describes, “Creation is indeed very good, but that doesn’t mean it is complete”  Or as Tolkien put it, humans make in the derivative mode as sub-creators. Smith also notes a caveat at this point. He says, “beware of monsters” – our “creational impulses can turn into Promethean striving” . We need to appreciate that culture is not neutral—we make it, but it in turn can make us…so, the goodness of the “culture-making impulse, also comes with a radical caution. We must say, “Yes, but…” .
- Occupy: we are called to occupy creation by being faithfully present. This requires recognizing the fallenness of the world and the fact, as Smith describes, that “The Body of Christ is called to be that peculiar people who occupy creation and remind the world that it belongs to God” .
Finally, a word about our vocation. According to Smith, we shouldn’t merely love our work, we should love it for God . “It’s pursing God in our work. God provides us the vision that pulls our labor toward his kingdom” . Thus, our vocation is found and that intersection of our heart’s passions, the world’s needs, and our talents. We love God by pursuing God in our work.
If we adopt these principles, we’ll move from a success mentality to a significance mentality; from a focus on striving, to a restful working. We are created to work, but our success and identity is not found in our work, it is found in Christ and we love and serve Christ through our work.
It is important to note that success is an ingredient in happiness. It is also important to note that all of our highest goods, as finite creatures made in God’s image, are relational good. Given this, there are at least three ways that success helps us find genuine happiness.
First, we find genuine happiness when we find our true end; when we succeed in the journey of life, walking by faith in hope guided by love, we succeed when our race is over and we are with God permanently and closely (cf. 2 Timothy 4:7-8). This idea of finishing the race is a kind of success where we receive the crown of righteousness and enter into God’s eternity. Second, we find genuine happiness when we journey rightly related to others along the way. As Homo viators, creatures on the way, we are not meant to journey alone. We need each other. It is a good thing to success, to win, but it is better to be in relationship with others, win or lose. That is the greater good; that is a true picture of success. Finally, we find success in life as an ingredient in happiness when we do our work, whatever it is that God has called us to do, and love it for God, or to put it another way, Love God in our work. This is Biblical success. So, there is a place for our work in God’s economy. And this is a metric of success too: we find success, and happiness, when we serve God and man and live out our calling to image, unfold, and occupy God’s good world as workers, or makers, of all things in creaturely response.
- David Brooks, The Second Mountain
- James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love
Thanks to our season five sponsor:
 David Brooks, The Second Mountain (New York: Random House, 2019).
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 10-12.
 The phrase is from the Danish novelist Matias Dalsgaard as discussed in Brooks, The Second Mountain, 24.
 James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2016), 172.
 Ibid., 173.
 Ibid., 174.
 Ibid., 187.