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From the “Ask Mark Anything” series

Question: Life seems to be a sum zero game. It’s kind of depressing. For every debit there seems to be a corresponding credit, and vice versa. An example is the movie about the white couple that took in the black football player and helped him and he ended up receiving an athletic scholarship and college degree. It is portrayed as if this helped the world. But in reality, that meant someone else didn’t get an athletic scholarship and thus did not get to go to college. He just took the place of someone else.   -Todd

This question forms the backbone of one of the strangest books of the Bible (yes I know about Song of Solomon). NOTE: even if you don’t buy the message of the Bible I think you will find this author’s work philosophically compelling. The book is called Ecclesiastes, and it tells the story of a man who set out to discover what makes life worth living. The book does not start on a happy note; twelve words in, the author utters his first line and you know right away this will be no joy-ride: “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” I’ll bet this guy was a blast at parties.

The book goes on to describe a series of ‘experiments’ he undertakes as he seeks the source of joy in life, and these include all the usual places people search: money, laughter, fame, sex (he had 700 wives, which is at least 699 too many), and impressing people with the wise things he said. He describes each of these experiences in detail, and discusses how they didn’t really seem to matter. As the book wraps up he repeats his original contention, almost word for word. Meaningless.

There has been a lot written about this book, by many people smarter than me, but my best take on it right now is this: you need to find enjoyment and meaning in the “small” events of daily living, because you are ultimately going to be let down by the “big” things you achieve. The writer says repeatedly that the best you can do in life is to enjoy your family and your food and your job. That’s about as basic as it gets, plus these are things that virtually everyone has, which means happiness is within everyone’s grasp. He also laments the fact that as he looks back on his fame, and the monuments he has built, and the wealth he has accrued, he finds that the enjoyment was found in the doing, and that once the goals were met and the challenges were conquered, the pride of their achievement brought him no joy. Translation: the fun was in experiencing the journey, not in basking in the arrival at the destination.

This truth runs 180 degrees contrary to what we expect. We are convinced that winning the championship will make us happy or that getting the promotion will make us content, or that the next rung up the career ladder will be the one, yet those things are often a huge let-down, bringing less contentment than what we gained in the weeks or months or years of hard work along the way. Meaningless indeed, and doubly frustrating because we had built them up so much in our minds along the way. Every coach I ever had dangled the chance for post-season glory before us as motivation to work harder, implying that we would be far happier if we won.

I believe the Biblical writer would say that the family who helped the ball player in the movie saw a chance to help another person, and did it, and that was good. I think he would also argue that their adopted son’s success in the NFL probably brought them less happiness than the years they invested in him along the way. And they found joy because they did it to do good, not so it would make them feel good or so they could make a movie about it and become famous. Happy people sometimes become famous, but fame rarely makes anyone happy, at least in the long run.

Whether you think the writer was wise or smart (endless Bible class debates have focused on this (meaningless?) distinction), or both, or neither, he seems a bit wry about his gift of brains. It turns out that being really smart does not make you any happier, and in fact he concludes the reverse: “more learning equals more misery,” which I have definitely experienced and deeply wish were not true. Academics are trained to question everything and to believe in almost nothing, which can make simple acceptance of the good things in life difficult. If you are looking for some genuinely happy people you are more likely to bump into them in a venue where names are not followed by a string of fancy letters. Sometimes the letters PhD really do stand for “Piled Higher and Deeper.”

I’ll close with the writer’s words, which capture it simply and fully: “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own work.” If you are unable to find joy in the journey, you are unlikely to find it at the destination.

NOTE: An inability to find joy in the daily events of life, over an extended period of time, is a common symptom of depression. You can assess whether you might be experiencing depression, which can feel like anger or meaninglessness (not just sadness) here. From personal experience I can tell you it is worth finding help if you think you might have it.