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Historian David McCullough on Work and the Pursuit of Happiness

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david-mccullough-02Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough is author of popular biographies such as Truman and John Adams, and at 79 years old, he’s still going strong. When asked by Harvard Business Review whether he is ready to retire, McCullough offered some interesting perspective on how he views his work through the American founders’ understanding of the “pursuit of happiness” (HT):

I can’t wait to get out of bed every morning. To me, it’s the only way to live. When the founders wrote about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they didn’t mean longer vacations and more comfortable hammocks. They meant the pursuit of learning. The love of learning. The pursuit of improvement and excellence. I keep telling students, Find work you love. Don’t concern yourself overly about how much money is involved or whether you’re ever going to be famous. I’m giving a talk at Dartmouth this week. It’s called the Hard Work of Writing. And it is hard work. But in hard work is happiness.

As I’ve examined before, defining happiness can be an elusive task, yet McCullough seems intent on pushing for much more than rainbows and lollipops. Indeed, his understanding of ultimate human fulfillment meshes quite easily with Lester DeKoster’s focus on work as a process for finding “meaning.” Arthur Brooks’ emphasis on “earned success” also comes to mind.

Over at Work Matters, Tom Nelson connects McCullough’s approach to a Christian understanding of work as being a gift from God:

McCullough’s wise words echo the inspired words of the writer of Ecclesiastes who comes to a similar conclusion ages ago. “Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot. Moreover when God gives any man wealth and possessions and enables to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God.” Yes our work is at times vexing in a broken world, but it is nevertheless a gift of God, a key to human happiness and human flourishing.

As image bearers of the one true God we were designed to work, to contribute to God’s good world all of our lives. With all the looming economic issues confronting us and the political theatre being played out in Washington, maybe a look back at what our founders had in mind when they penned “the pursuit of happiness,” would be both instructive and helpful.

Read Nelson’s full response at Work Matters.

Read the full interview.

For more on restoring a proper view of work, meaning, and fulfillment, see Work: The Meaning of Your Life and Flourishing Churches and Communities.

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Joseph Sunde Joseph Sunde is a writer and project coordinator for the Acton Institute, serving as editor of the Letters to the Exiles blog and content manager of the Oikonomia channel at Patheos.com. He is the founder of Remnant Culture and was a longtime contributor to AEI's Values & Capitalism project. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Mission:Work, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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