Beyond Happiness: Finding Meaning in Service

The question “How shall I live?” is one that many of us struggle with existentially throughout our lives. What does it look like? How do we accomplish this and how do we know when we are successful? Through the Enduring Questions & Ideas (Q&I) curriculum at Concordia University Irvine, we look at how to develop students for lives of learning, service, and leadership in an ever competitive global society. In the course INT 105: Leadership Development, we look at how God uses us as leaders in the world and what leadership looks like through a biblical lens.

Fundamental in a Christian’s life is looking at what the Scripture says regarding how to live. Scripture commands that we focus on serving our neighbors in our vocations, while the world often gives a very different message of encouraging self-centeredness. Jesus models what we need to focus on in life when he says of himself,

“the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28, ESV)

How has God uniquely blessed me in life? How do I use those gifts or strengths for others? One aspect we examine in INT 105 is what strengths has God given each of us for leadership and service; to find our gifts we use an assessment tool called StrengthsFinder. This leadership approach encourages people to lead with their strongest gifts. Donald O. Clifton, the founder of this approach, summarizes his insights about excellent leaders this way: “When we studied them, excellent performers were rarely well rounded. On the contrary, they were sharp.”

How do we become sharp in our leadership skills so that we can best serve others? Students need to be challenged to develop their strengths and explore where they can use those gifts to serve others well in their vocations in work, community, family, and church. In this process, a disconnect can occur when a student begins college with one major and then realize God might be calling them into a completely different work vocation. Sometimes this is a liberating realization as our passion explodes for a new subject and path of service. Many times this realization can be difficult for students (and parents) because their dreams of future happiness are tied closely to a particular work vocation. As often happens, what we believe could make us happy is not the work vocation we are called too.

In her article “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy,” Emily Esfahani Smith states that “pursuing happiness can actually make people unhappy; is this all there is? People need meaning in life; how is that different than being happy?” Viktor Fankl, in his seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning, found that

“It is the pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

Frankl was faced with a situation that most students will never face: concentration camps and torture. However, Frankl teaches a valuable lesson on coping and looking for hope in a situation that seems to lack any hope. He even goes so far as to talk about actual value in suffering, which is another concept that seems foreign to American culture today.

In INT 105 we get to examine and to talk about the ultimate hope that we have through the salvation of Jesus Christ. This hope is one in which we get to celebrate the question “How shall I live?” because a Christian world view differs from the self-centered happiness fanaticism that many people spend their lives searching for. Through INT 105, we get to focus on the biblical concept of serving our neighbors–even sacrificing and suffering for them as Jesus did for us–and how that freedom to serve others gives us a meaningful life.

Gilbert Fugitt is Dean of Students at Concordia University Irvine