What makes life meaningful? What brings you happiness? In a Pew Research survey asking Americans what provides them with a sense of meaning, most people mentioned family, while career was the second most likely response. In fact, while 34% mentioned career as a source of meaning in their lives, only 20% of respondents mentioned spirituality or faith.
Fr. Matthew Spencer, OSJ recently discussed this concept of seeking meaning and happiness through our work, and that rather than seeking our purpose in work we should recognize the true purpose of work, and how it can lead us to lasting happiness.
He said, “It’s a cultural phenomenon in our time that’s happening, where people are so focused on effort and working hard, and seeing that their 18-hour work days are a virtue, that they’re missing a large part of what the purpose of work is. And I don’t fault them for it. I think, unfortunately, they’ve been fed this line.”
“You can read so-called motivational books that will try to get you to eke out the last drop of adrenaline and energy you can give to your work, convincing you that if only you work a little bit harder than everybody around you you’ll be happier, you will be more successful, and in the end you will win this rat race of life,” he continued. “I don’t buy it. You know why? Because we’re not made that way. That is to say, work is not to be an end in and of itself.”
Catholic Social Teaching tells us that work is dignified and is an intrinsic good, and so having a strong work ethic can be a good thing. The problem, Fr. Matthew pointed out, comes when we make an idol of our work, pouring our energy and devotion into our careers rather than our relationship with God and neighbor.
“I don’t mean to criticize people who have very strong work ethic, who are working really, really hard,” he clarified. “There’s intrinsically nothing wrong with that. The problem happens when that takes a higher priority than relationships, than our vocation in life, than serving God with our time, our effort, and our energy. When working ourselves to death leads to burn out and us living unproductive, unhealthy lives that creates a problem.”
So what place should work hold in our lives? How can we know we’re finding the balance between making work an idol on one hand and not fulfilling our obligations on the other? Fr. Matthew explained that if we think work will lead to our happiness we will always be disappointed. But if we see work as a means of our sanctification, that will help lead us to the happiness we are seeking.
“You and I have been charged by God to make the world a better place. It’s true,” he said. “And you and I have been invited by the Lord to overcome the effects of sin by working hard in the vineyard of the Lord. But all of this is meant as a means to our sanctification. A means to the building up of the kingdom. And not for us to find some type of happiness in comparison to other people.”
“The careers that we have, the efforts that we put forth always have to be balanced by this deeper call to holiness that God gives to each one of us. And you and I can’t be holy if we’re not getting enough rest in order to be nice to each other. You and I can’t be holy if we’re not spending time in prayer and putting our phones and our work to the side throughout the day. You and I cannot find happiness unless we’re living with the right priorities in our life.”
So while work has an important place in our life, it’s not where we will ultimately find meaning, purpose, and happiness. That can be found in God alone. When it comes to finding joy and fulfillment we can heed the words of Jesus when He said, ‘Seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.’
Fr. Matthew concluded his reflection saying, “Give your life to God 100%. Give your time to your vocation. That will lead us to happiness. Why? Because that’s what God has made us for. For relationship with Him and for service in His kingdom.”
“We will find happiness when we are doing God’s will. We will find happiness when our work leads us to become the saints God wants us to be. We’ll never find happiness if we’re just comparing ourselves to others. What leads us to happiness is, like St. Joseph, doing our work so that it makes us grow closer to Jesus and to the Blessed Mother.”
Listen to the full reflection below: