The lifelong search for meaning

My younger sister, who has MD after her name, regularly sends family members and friends advice on how to live healthy and happy lives so our bodies make it to the average life expectancy of 78.6 years—if not Abraham’s 175 years or Noah’s 950.

It can get a little annoying, though, because she sends these healthy-living emails to seven or eight people at a time, most of whom don’t know one another, and I’m convinced everyone is thinking, “Hmmm, why am I on this list? I don’t suffer depression. I avoid Popeye’s Cajun chicken wings. I don’t have shingles. I’m not prone to outbursts of anger, well most of the time.”

Her most recent email included a story from the New York Times titled, “Finding Meaning and Happiness in Old Age.” I’m sure everyone who got it groaned simultaneously.

My first reaction was “Is she calling me old?” (For the record, I was the youngest person on the list. At least I think I was. At least I hope I was.)

My second reaction was to send her research by Marist Polling that showed Baby Boomers don’t think old age starts until well past the 60s. To them, 67 is middle-age. As Baby Boomers get older, they keep pushing their definition of old age into the future. Pretty soon it will be 92. Old age, I guess, is in the eye of the beholder. It’s as relative as modern morality, which is why we love saying, “60 is the new 40.” Just tell that to your joints on a rainy day.

If you ever heard of the “real age” movement that Dr. Oz subscribes to, you understand what I mean. Your “real age” isn’t determined by your birth certificate, it’s determined by a quiz you take to assess how healthy your body is. So you could really be ten years younger than your birth date—or ten years older.

Are you looking for “meaning and happiness in old age”? Are you looking for meaning and happiness at any age? There’s only one path—God. And he wasn’t mentioned in the Times story.

Here’s my theory: Aging should bring us closer to God because it takes us further from the transitory pleasures of the world. When you “get old,” your primary concern should be spiritual unless, of course, you didn’t save enough for retirement.

We’re all obsessed with aging, but we should make our spiritual health a greater priority. There comes a time when you need to tell yourself, “God should be the center of my life—not my career, not my position in the corporate food chain, not my love life, not my yoga class, not my gym membership, the Yankees or the Red Sox.

Pope Benedict XVI said, “To what extent does a life that is totally spent in achieving success, longing for prestige, and seeking commodities—to the point of excluding God from one’s horizon—truly lead to happiness? Can true happiness exist when God is left out of consideration? Experience shows that we are not happy just because our material expectations and needs are satisfied.”

At the top of a large pile of books on my nightstand, there’s one with the title “Dr. Burns’ Prescription for Happiness” by the late comedian George Burns, who lived to 100, so he must have known something about meaning and happiness and old age.

His definition of happiness included young women in bikinis, Caribbean vacations and winning streaks at Vegas casinos. But he also said this: “If you were to go around asking people what would make them happier, you’d get answers like a new car, a bigger house, a raise in pay, winning a lottery, a facelift, more kids, less kids—but probably not one in a hundred would say a chance to help people. And yet that may bring the most happiness of all.” That, of course, is a fundamental message of our faith.

Everyone has a personal theory about how to find meaning and happiness. We want good health, a prosperous financial portfolio, a loving spouse, respectful kids and a high-paying job. Yet we’re surrounded by unhappiness and lack of meaning because we pursue false sources of happiness instead of the True Source.

In old age, middle-age and young adulthood, it’s never too late or too early to make God the center of your life. Best of all, he will provide the meaning, and he will provide the happiness.

By Joe Pisani