Friday, March 4

Happiness vs Purpose

Someone asked me today if I was happy with my life. It was an honest question, which can be rare in a world built on insubstantial small talk.

I answered honestly. I am happy. I love my life, my Church, my family and friends, my work... and I'm definitely happy.

But the question made me think.


It's such a strange thing.

And so intertwined with other, sometimes seemingly exclusive principles:

Fun. Meaning. Purpose. Fulfillment. Achievement. Growth. Bliss. Pleasure.

Tonight after the Friday night rush, pulled a dozen different directions and feeling inadequate the entire time, was I happy? Not really. I was tired and wanting to figure out how to make busy Friday nights less stressful. Tonight was better than last week, but it's still definitely not there yet. So happiness can be fleeting.

But was I fulfilled? I just spent the last few hours helping other people feel happy. Enabling them to find a piece of something unique, experience something new, and open their minds. Mixed with the stress was an overlay of people who honestly had a great time and will probably tell their friends and remember those hours for months to come. And I designed that. My best friend and I, along with thousands of customers along the way, made that process happen. That's something special.

So this afternoon I felt happy, and tonight I feel fulfilled.

And that seems pretty normal for my life.

Being autistic has made the emotional aspect of life simple and complex. Complex because emotions are often extremely intense for me. Someone made fun of my voice tonight, and even thought it was light-hearted, trivial, and maybe even expected given the circumstance, I honestly felt like I had been hit by an emotional truck. I wanted to never talk again. Simple because when I feel those emotions, I can usually separate them from logic and then choose which path I really want to follow. I smiled, kept talking, and everyone took the joke the way it had been intended. Another memory - when I had the heart-wrenching realization that I might not be a dad in this life - which has been my biggest dream and hope and desired blessing for as long as I can remember - it threatened to rip me apart emotionally. I remember breaking into tears that wouldn't stop. For other people I've met, that same realization made them question their testimonies. I didn't. I don't remember where I was, but it was inconvenient at the time that I couldn't handle it emotionally.... so I put my emotions on the side, promised myself I'd figure it out, prayed for strength, went on with life, and then later processed my feelings in a blog post or journal entry.

I like to think that I value all of the seemingly exclusive goals - happiness, meaning, joy, fun, achievement, and growth - and that I'n unwilling to let myself fall for a path that subverts one for more of the other. I'm not willing to stay someplace that I'm not happy. But, then again, I'm not willing to go search for happiness somewhere where I'd lose part of the meaning in my life.

So when corporate recruiters talked to me and my classmates in the MBA program about uber-boring-sounding jobs with amazing pay... I wasn't excited. If someone said that I could "work my way" into a better position, that wasn't interesting. I made the decision that I would love my life forever... and if it stopped making me happy or giving me purpose, then I'd do whatever it takes to make it happen - always focusing on keeping both sides.

That's one reason why leaving the Church isn't an option. Yes, I could slowly let myself fall away from the gospel, and my testimony would ebb away perhaps slow enough to be imperceptible. Find people outside the gospel, and slowly let myself be pulled or pushed or drawn in that direction until I was far away. It happens. There could be a reason, an excuse, or something else at the beginning. But the deep reality is that, no matter how much I could fall away, I've had personal spiritual experiences intense enough that time and distance could never make them go away entirely. I would always know, deep down inside, that I had betrayed something I truly and deeply believed, something that I cared about, something that brought me incredible meaning even though it came at the price of dedicating my life. I could try to convince myself that living the gospel and finding joy was impossible, or that it was ok, or that it was better this way, or anything else, and maybe I could even do it. I convince myself of things all the time. But the God who heard my prayers when I needed Him, who sent me love in the form of people and feelings and rain, the God who loves me enough to let me live a life of complexity would assuredly prick my conscience one day down the road, and give me the chance to choose Him again. Would I be humble enough to follow?

I think that, in the long run, meaning and purpose should win out over temporary happiness... but that meaning and purpose should *bring* happiness as well. The people I've always admired most in my life are those who, even when dealt difficult lives and dismal futures, pursue meaning with dedication. King David, who, somehow, made a series of poor decisions and killed another man for his wife... but then spent a good portion of the remainder of his life praising God and trying to repent (at least, that's my idealistic view of it). Men whose wives leave them when they share their same-sex attraction or addiction to pornography, but the men make it back to the temple and the Church again. Others who have lived with gay partners or spouses and, hearing the missionaries or remembering their past, make the decision to change their lives and give up part of who they once were.

Gospel living - what should be the ultimate in meaning - should simultaneously bring happiness. Happiness isn't for the next life only. It's for now. Living in the gospel brings joy in people's lives, and if the gospel isn't doing it for me, then I can be totally sure that I am doing something wrong. (The gospel is never to blame - it is perfectly designed for every single human being in existence to help them find maximum happiness and purpose. So leaving the Church, while it may temporarily decrease external stress, wouldn't be a good decision if I'm looking to maximize my experience here on Earth.) Usually when I'm unhappy or unfulfilled, my perspective is to blame. I don't understand a principle, or I lack faith, or I don't trust that God knows what He is doing. In the past, sometimes it was addiction. Or severe depression. Or whatever.

But yeah. I guess my takeaway is that, while happiness can be transient, meaning is really, really important. So the way to live my life is to first find the things that bring the greatest meaning (the gospel foremost, helping people find joy, teaching, stuff like that), then, second, figure out how to find the greatest happiness within those meaningful bounds.

Which means that meaning (as a thing, or as a type of happiness) is more important to me than just happiness itself... since finding happiness within meaningful (and often difficult) circumstances can take some creativity and time.

I hope I can remember that the next time I'm super stressed, or facing a difficult decision, or bemoaning the fact that if life had gone according to my plan, I'd have kids of my own by now. Yes, living life the way God intended is always more difficult. But the growth, perspective, meaning, and fulfillment are always amazing... and, in the moments when I'm able to actually live and understand the gospel in its fullness, living life according to God brings happiness, joy, and bliss far greater than any alternative.

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