Learn how to be happy from trusted Bible teacher Dr. David Jeremiah

The Key to Happiness

By David Jeremiah

On one edition of the CBS television show NFL Today, Deion Sanders and Dan Marino found themselves arguing on the air. The bone of contention was Lawrence Taylor’s book, LT: Over the Edge—a controversial account of Taylor’s years in the National Football League.

“When I was on the field, I was Superman,” Taylor had described in his book. “It was almost like I operated on a higher plane…. But when I came off the field, something happened. LT became Lawrence Taylor, and Lawrence Taylor was completely clueless. Like Clark Kent on crack.”1

Taylor admitted he had often been out of control, addicted to cocaine and a hard-partying lifestyle that led to a bitter divorce, numerous arrests, financial ruin, broken health, and deep depression. He went on to describe the excesses of other NFL players.

As Sanders and Marino discussed the book on the air, Marino expressed surprise at some of the revelations in Taylor’s book and indicated that such things did not happen when he was a quarterback. When Sanders scoffed at Marino’s incredulity, Marino took offense. “Why are you saying I’m naïve?”

Deion replied: "Don’t tell me you don’t know what goes on in the NFL. You don’t know guys get high and guys do everything under the sun? Twenty-year-old or thirty-year-old guys with millions of dollars—that equals destruction. So you can’t sit up here and tell me that you were immune to that stuff."2

I found it interesting that Sanders reached back 3,000 years for Solomon’s phrase to describe the lives of modern athletes. Whether athlete or emperor, you can try everything “under the sun,” but none of it will fill an empty life. None of it.

To drive home his point, Solomon recounts some of his own experiences under the sun and his search to find the key to happiness.


Searching for Meaning in Wisdom

I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind.

What is crooked cannot be made straight,
And what is lacking cannot be numbered.

I communed with my heart, saying, “Look, I have attained greatness, and have gained more wisdom than all who were before me in Jerusalem. My heart has understood great wisdom and knowledge.” And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind.

For in much wisdom is much grief,
And he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

—Ecclesiastes 1:12-18

Solomon ends the first chapter of Ecclesiastes by describing the futility of searching for fulfillment and happiness through learning. Was the king soured on education? Not a bit. He was the best-educated man of his generation. His wisdom was legendary; he had pursued wisdom wherever it could be found. Yet to his surprise, the more he learned, the emptier he felt.

He's not alone. Several years ago, in his monthly letter from Focus on the Family ministry, Dr. James Dobson told the story of Karen Cheng, age seventeen, from Fremont, California. She achieved a perfect score of eight—on both sections of the SAT test. She also got a perfect 8,000 on the rigorous University of California acceptance index. Never before had anyone accomplished this staggering intellectual feat.

Karen, a straight-A student at Mission San Jose High School, described herself as a typical teenager who munches on junk food and talks for hours on the telephone. She even claimed to be a procrastinator who did not do her homework until the last minute.

Karen’s teachers told a different story. They called her “Wonder Woman” because of her uncanny ability to retain whatever she read. But when a reporter asked her, “What is the meaning of life?” Karen’s reply was surprising. “I have no idea,” she answered. “I would like to know myself.”3

T. S. Eliot once dryly remarked, “All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance.”4 In other words, the more we learn, the smaller we feel.

Solomon was confused. He pursued education, wisdom, and knowledge as no one before him had done. And the fuller his mastery of these fields, the emptier they seemed. “I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind,” he concluded wearily. “For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:17-18).

Consider the sum total of all our knowledge, all our progress, all our technology. Has any of it really made the experience of life richer? Yes, we are thankful to God for medical advances and jet travel. Most of us have more information on the hard drives of our computers than entire nations once possessed in their ancient libraries.

Yet there have never been so many unhappy people, so many illiterate, so many hungry and diseased and disowned. All our accumulated knowledge of history cannot keep us from terrorism and war and discord on every continent.

This, of course, is a global crisis. The Star, published in Johannesburg, South Africa, reported on a survey conducted among South African students. There were alarming increases in the levels of substance abuse and sexual expression. Did these freedoms bring happiness? The newspaper reported: “The survey also gave an indication of the mental health of many teenagers, showing that many had feelings of emptiness, depression, and hopelessness about their future. About 25 percent of the pupils have felt ‘sad,’ resulting in 19 percent considering suicide.”5

For all its benefits, education and intellectual attainment can only speak to us about life under the sun. The rest of the story is found in God’s revealed Word. When we neglect or reject the revealed truth of Scripture, even most of our brilliant scientists and professors are little more than mice scurrying around inside a piano, analyzing all the hammers and strings, willfully ignorant of the musical score sitting on the stand above the keys. (God holds the key to happiness in His Word.­)

For all its benefits, education and intellectual attainment can only speak to us about life under the sun.  The rest of the story is found in God's revealed Word.

To paraphrase a quaint old North Carolina evangelist, Vance Havner, it is exceedingly odd that scholars master whole libraries seeking wisdom, while the janitor nearby has enjoyed it for years.6

Christian apologist Josh McDowell, speaking on college campuses in the 1960s and ‘70s, often reminded audiences that if education was the key to life, then universities would be the most moral, ethical, and spiritual centers in any nation. Education would equate to contentment. Knowledge taught to us about our future professions and chosen fields of study would hold the key to our happiness, make us feel content, worthy. We all know that’s not the case.

Paul had his era’s equivalent of a wall full of Ivy League master’s degrees. Yet Jesus, the Lord of life, was a self-taught peasant. The meaning of life is something discovered elsewhere.

Education is a wonderful thing, an earthly treasure to be sought. But we must realize that Western civilization has set the value of it too high. As Paul explained clearly in 1 Corinthians 13:2, knowledge minus soul amounts to a great deal of nothing. And as he said in verse 13, spiritual character trumps all other gifts every time. As America learned in the first few years of the 21st century, knowledge and power in corporate offices can simply lead to more creative ways to rebel against goodness and reason.


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Searching for Meaning in Wild Living

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure”; but surely this also was vanity. I said of laughter—“Madness!”’ and of mirth, “What does it accomplish?” I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives.
—Ecclesiastes 2:1-3

Forward into the second chapter of Ecclesiastes comes the weary king, prolonging his quest for meaning. Education proved fruitless, but perhaps he’ll find what he seeks in reckless abandon. Perhaps his key to happiness was the next available adrenaline rush he could find. These verses sound like a report from one of our tabloids or celebrity magazines.

Solomon began with amusement: “Come now, I will test you with mirth” (Ecclesiastes 2:1). You can almost visualize the scene. His palace in Jerusalem probably resembled a tenth-century-BC version of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas—bright lights, big city, bells and baubles everywhere. But no meaning…no peace…no happiness. The mornings-after all looked the same.

The possibilities for sensual pleasure were nearly endless in Solomon’s world. And who had better access to those possibilities than the king? He had a palace and all its servants at his fingertips. He had rooms full of wives and concubines. And still he found no fullness, no happiness. The emptiness of it brought him to a wise realization: “Even in laughter the heart may sorrow, and the end of the mirth may be grief” (Proverbs 14:13). For many, laughter only breaks the monotony of crying, and pleasure is only an intermission to pain. Solomon was trying to be happy, but he was failing.

So many today can empathize with Solomon. They have been down the road of pleasure and found that it led nowhere but to destruction.

When amusement failed to satisfy him, Solomon turned to alcohol. “I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine,” he said, “while guiding my heart with wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 2:3).

It is not that Solomon became an alcoholic; he apparently avoided being drunk. He says he was able to keep his heart with wisdom. He kept his senses about him so he could record his observations on the effects of the wine. But as he sampled the tastes of the drink before him, he found that the pleasure was fleeting and artificial. His answer, his key to happiness was certainly not in a bottle.

The bottomless budgets of the liquor industry make drinking seem very attractive today. A wine glass or beer bottle becomes a ticket to social acceptance for our young people, and soon they feel naked without it. Campus parties and social life revolve completely around drinking and intoxication, as if these were the most glorious of pursuits, the focus of life itself. Meanwhile, the mounting tragedies of drunk driving and dissipated lives are ignored, because who can shout over the message of movies, songs, and TV commercials that glorify the emptiness?

Solomon knew the truth. Alcohol was perhaps the emptiest of pursuits.


Searching for Meaning in Work

I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made myself water pools from which to water the growing trees of the grove.
—Ecclesiastes 2:4-6

Wisdom and wild living failed, so off to work. Perhaps through accomplishment he could find the meaning of life. Solomon turned to his genius for building. He put up houses and planted vineyards. He planted gardens and orchards and made pools to water them.

The history of that period confirms that Solomon was one of the greatest builders of any era. How could he have thought the selfish, temporal pleasures of amusement or alcohol would amount to anything? Surely the answer was in leaving a legacy—a solid monument for future generations that would say, “This was Solomon and here are his great works.”

Building a monument is a glorious thing. But in these three verses Solomon refers to himself no fewer than ten times. Instead of doing all this building for God, or for the people of Jerusalem, he was doing it for himself. Why? What was he trying to prove?

Is work a valid place to find ultimate meaning in life? Certainly many of us think so, judging from the schedules we keep. But David Henderson, in his book Culture Shift, suggests there may be something more subtle behind our frantic activity levels:

Our lives, like our Daytimes, are busy, busy, busy, full of things to do and places to go and people to see. Many of us, convinced that the opposite of an empty life is a full schedule, remain content to press on and ignore the deeper questions. Perhaps it is out of fear that we stuff our lives to the walls—fear that, were we to stop and ask the big questions, we would discover there are no satisfying answers after all.7

When I was growing up, my father was the president of Cedarville College near Columbus, Ohio. He invested fifty years of his life as president and then chancellor of that school. More recently, Dr. Paul Dixon, a dear friend of mine, served as Cedarville president. When Dr. Dixon retired, I watched him go through the challenges of turning over all he had done for 25 years to another man.

A member of the college staff remarked to me, “Do you know that during Dr. Dixon’s presidency, one hundred million dollars’ worth of buildings were constructed on this campus?”

I was surprised, but as I walked across campus I realized it was true. Dr. Dixon was a great leader and a great builder. Were those building projects meaningful? Absolutely. Will they serve young people and educate them? Without question. But I know—and Dr. Dixon knows—that none of those buildings have vested his life with lasting meaning. Adding more and more buildings to the campus and assisting the education to numerous students going forward was not his key to happiness.

Buildings are attractive and useful, but ultimately they are no more than masses of brick plastered together. Students enjoy them for four or five years; the faculty will use them during their teaching careers. But eventually everyone who walks into those buildings will walk out again, and someday not one brick will still be standing. Solomon’s great temple as well as all his buildings, perfect in every detail, are in ruins.

Ecclesiastes teaches us that our work and our projects are generally worthwhile, but if we look to them as sources of ultimate meaning we will invariably be disappointed. Remember what we have already noted: eternity is the northward compass point of our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). That means we can never be satisfied with temporal-based work. We could fill the earth with skyscrapers; we could spend every hour of our lives in toil—and the emptiness would abide. Ultimate satisfaction has one exclusive source.

Ernest Hemingway was the archetypal twentieth-century man. He filled many books with reflections of his worldwide adventures. He might be found sipping champagne in Paris, hunting grizzly bears in Alaska, watching bullfights in Spain, or fishing for tarpon in the Florida Keys. He lived the fullest life imaginable—under the sun. Yet the time closed in upon him when he chose to take his own life. Discovered many years later, his suicide note read, “Life is just one damn thing after another.”

We want so badly to believe that we earn our own tickets in life. We want to believe that our proud individual accomplishments will lend us distinction and significance. We want to believe that our pursuits will give us long-term happiness. After all, that would imply that we are in total control, that we are the “captains of our souls,” as the poet put it. But only a brief search through history is required to call the roll of those who have walked in greatness yet died in despair.

Old Testament commentator Derek Kidner makes his observation: “What spoils the pleasures of life for us is our hunger to get out of them more than they can ever deliver. Getting eternal and ultimate meaning out of temporal and temporary pursuits is destined to fail.”8


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Searching for Meaning in Wealth

I acquired male and female servants, and had servants born in my house. Yes, I had greater possessions of herds and flocks than all who were in Jerusalem before me. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds.

So I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me.

Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart rejoiced in all my labor; and this was my reward from all my labor.  Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind.

There was no profit under the sun.

—Ecclesiastes 2:7-11

What nation would you guess to have the happiest citizens? It’s probably not one that you would think. According to a 2003 report on CNN, an analysis of more than 65 countries by the World Values Survey suggested a higher “happiness index” in Nigeria than any other country. Mexico followed, then Venezuela, El Salvador, and Puerto Rico.

The United States came in sixteenth, Australia twentieth, and Great Britain 24th. This survey, conducted by an international network of social scientists, showed that happiness has little to do with wealth or income. In fact, the researchers included this surprising sentence in their report: “Survey after survey has shown that the desire for material goods, which has increased hand in hand with average income, is a happiness suppressant” (emphasis added).9

In other words, the more we have what we want, the more we want what we don’t have. We try stuffing runaway materialism into the empty pockets of our souls, but the pockets have holes in them and we never achieve a feeling of real, existential satisfaction. Jesus summed it up this way: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15).

The immensity of Solomon’s wealth is beyond adequate description. But we’ll give it a try anyway.

In 1 Kings 10:14, we find that “the weight of gold that came to Solomon yearly was 666 talents of gold.” In current dollars, Solomon’s annual income of gold was nearly $304 million—“besides that from the traveling merchants, from the income of traders, from all the kings of Arabia, and from the governors of the country” (1 Kings 10:15).

There were many other sources of income; silver was so abundant that it wasn’t even counted (1 Kings 10:21). Therefore, we might safely round the $304 million up to $500 million—a half-billion dollars of annual income—without fear of overstatement. There are people in the world today whose lifetime net worth is counted in the billions (much of it in the form of paper, not hard assets as was Solomon’s). But in this age of wealth, there are very few whose annual income approaches Solomon’s. The writer of 1 Kings sums it up by saying, “King Solomon surpassed all the kings of the earth in riches” (10:23). It’s easy to see why.

If we had walked into Solomon’s palace during that golden age of Israel’s history, we would have seen precious stones from Africa, spices from Arabia, almond and sandalwood from India, ivory from India and Africa, and cedars from Lebanon. Solomon had 40,000 stalls for his chariot horses and 12,000 horsemen.

His awe-inspiring palace left the nation breathless. Gold was found everywhere in its design; stairways beautifully ornamented; pillars and posts, curtains and courtyards all made of rare and costly materials. A nearly infinite array of servants populated it, dressed in gorgeous clothes. Rich cuisine, costly uniforms, and expensive animals were imported from around the world. It was a building worthy of a king whose wisdom and splendor eclipsed that of all the rules on earth. Solomon rightly claimed that he was greater and wealthier than any of his predecessors in Jerusalem.

But in the end, it was “meaningless—utterly meaningless.” Solomon, in today’s language, would have said, “I had it all; I had it my way, and I climbed to the highest peaks of human achievement. But the one thing I sought was never within my grasp.”

From the outside looking in, we could have assumed Solomon had found happiness simply by observing all the wisdom, wealth, accomplishments, and riches he had acquired. Surely we have all looked at people in our own lives and made the same assumption. However, Solomon made a timeless error in his quest for meaning: he sought it in things and experiences. He searched in wisdom, in wild living, in work, in wealth—all in vain. The object of his search was, in fact, unavailable under the sun. The key to his happiness was not found; the search among earthly things was futile.

We could have assumed Solomon had found happiness simply by observing all the wisdom, wealth, accomplishment.... The key to his happiness was not found; the search among earthly things was futile.

Centuries later another wise man, C. S. Lewis, corrected the assumption that ultimate meaning can be found in anything in this world:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.10


  1. Lawrence Taylor, Steve Serby, LT: Over the Edge (New York: Harper Collins, 2003).
  2. Jim Sami, “L.T. Comments Rile TV Analysts,” Smith Florida Sun-Sentinel, December 1, 2003.
  3. James Dobson, monthly newsletter, May 1996.
  4. T. S. Eliot, “Choruses from the Rock,” 1934.
  5. The Star, Johannesburg, South Africa (December 13, 2003), 1.
  6. Vance Havner, The Secret of Christian Joy (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1938), 40.
  7. David W. Henderson, Culture Shift: Communicating God’s Truth to Our Changing World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 186.
  8. David Kidner, A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1976), 35.
  9. CNN.com Report, “Nigeria No. 1 in Happiness, U.S. Ranks 16th,” October 2, 2003.
  10. C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 7.
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