Abd Er-Rahman III of Spain (960 C.E.)
I have now reigned about 50 years in victory or peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot. They amount to fourteen.
HH the Dalai Lama, from Ethics for a New Millennium
[...] We humans are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others' actions. We survive here in dependence on others. […] there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others' activities. For this reason it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.
Nor is it so remarkable that our greatest joy should come when we are motivated by concern for others. […] not only do altruistic actions bring about happiness but they also lessen our experience of suffering. [...] In our concern for others, we worry less about ourselves. When we worry less about ourselves an experience of our own suffering is less intense.
[...] genuine happiness consists in those spiritual qualities of love, compassion, patience, tolerance and forgiveness and so on. For it is these which provide both for our happiness and others' happiness.
Here’s a challenging question for you:
Are you happy?
Perhaps you’ve been asked this question before. The person who asked may have meant something specific: ‘are you happy in your new job?’, ‘are you happy with your new home?’, or ‘are you happy about your new car?’ You probably answered politely ‘oh, yes, I’m very happy!’ Well, there have been times when I forgot about answering politely for a moment and really thought about the question – the big question! I imagine that a kind of blank far away look came over my face as I began to ponder the many layers of ‘are you happy?’
What is happiness?
Is it the same as joy or pleasure or satisfaction or contentment?
Am I feeling it right now?
Do I have to feel happy to be happy?
Is it important to be happy?
Should happiness be the aim of my life?
And since – like Abd Er-Rahman III – I don’t feel joyful at every moment of every day, the question also sets me wondering about what I might be missing. Could I be happier? Should I be happier? How? What is keeping me from being happier?
Big questions, and important ones… This morning, we will take a look at happiness.
One thing we should probably clear up at the very start is what we mean happiness. At a Committee meeting some time back, I discussed my plan to start a new Wednesday evening programme which would be called ‘happiness class.’ The reaction was not positive. Everyone liked the idea of the programme – teaching and using spiritual practice to cultivate compassion, gratitude, mindfulness, and self-acceptance – but they didn’t like the name at all. To their ears, ‘Happiness Class’ immediately made them think ‘happy clappy.’
Do you know the expression? It refers to a certain style of exuberant Christian worship that involves a lot of lively singing and clapping and a kind of theology that I will – perhaps unfairly – characterise with the simple phrase: ‘love Jesus and everything will be OK.’
The negative sense of ‘happy clappy’, I think, comes from the belief that this is a shallow and simplistic kind of religious thought. I don’t disagree. There is also the sense that happiness can be seen as a superficial thing that is put on like a garment, but that has relatively little to do with our deeper reality.
This is not what I mean by happiness – at least not the kind that is worthwhile goal – and, of course, we immediately came up with a better name of the programme.
So, if happiness is something other than the fleeting superficial feeling of pleasure we sometimes think of, what is it?
When you listened to the story this morning of the sad orphan girl who became a model of happiness, how did you picture her? I suspect it wasn’t giddiness and glee that you saw, or even a constant smile, but rather a sort of centeredness, a sense of calm and ease. That is the sort of happiness I’m thinking of.
George Santayana said this:
A string of excited, fugitive, miscellaneous pleasures is not happiness;
happiness resides in imaginative reflection and judgment, when the picture of one's life, or of human life, as it truly has been or is, satisfies the will,
and is gladly accepted.
This is a notion of happiness that refers not to moments of pleasure but to a quality of a whole life. Happiness is that which makes life good – especially in the knowledge that life is marked not just by joy but by suffering and pain as well. This is also what Aristotle meant by happiness when he called happiness “…the whole aim and end of human existence.” Not the momentary thrill of a purchase or a sensation, but the deep sense of living a good life.
When we understand happiness in this deeper way, it begins to look more like a worthwhile goal for our lives than do the shallower more hedonistic versions. Acting to maximize the happiness of ourselves and others does not seem like a bad idea at all. Indeed, this was the core idea of the Utilitarian philosophers. As Jeremy Bentham put it, “The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.”
Of course, some would disagree with placing such an emphasis on happiness. We are certainly aware of belief systems that place a strong emphasis on self-denial and sacrifice – that suffering altruistically is truly the good life and that happiness is not a worthy goal. To be fair though, often the motivation for such behaviour is happiness anyway – albeit in a world to come. So even there, we have a recognition of the centrality of happiness to the human experience.
Now, where does happiness come from? How do we attain it?
Well, there are an awful lot of notions about this. Of course, companies are spending billions of pounds each year to convince us that happiness comes from purchasing their goods or services. And there is a strong message in our culture telling us that happiness goes hand in hand with wealth. Money, beauty, stuff, love… It’s all supposed to be a package that we should be reaching for. Does it bring happiness?
Many wise people have weighed in on the question of what causes happiness. In profound and compelling words we are offered a wide variety of advice. I find much of this advice to have the ring of truth. It’s just too bad that so much of it is contradictory!
Some words of wisdom claim that happiness is an option we can take – that we choose whether or not to be happy. At the opposite end of the spectrum, though, it is claimed that happiness is determined by our upbringing and genetics – that there is almost nothing we can do to change our happiness now.
We are told that happiness arises from doing: that it comes from satisfying work, from achievement, or fidelity to a worthy purpose. We are also told that it comes from a way of being – from wisdom, from purity of mind, or for the Buddhists, through extinguishing of craving or attachment.
We are told that happiness comes from our relations with others: from having family, from the exercise of compassion or from helping or giving happiness to others. And then we are told that happiness arises from independence.
What a muddle!
Fortunately, happiness has over the past several years become a serious subject of psychological research. We actually know quite a bit now about what actually produces happiness.
One very important finding of the scientific studies: money doesn’t make you happy! Once our basic needs are met, people with more money are no happier than people with less. The British people are three times wealthier than they were in the 1950s, but are significantly less happy now than then!
And maybe people are beginning to recognize the lack of a connection between income and satisfaction: in a recent opinion poll, people were asked whether the government’s prime objective should be the greatest happiness or the greatest wealth. An overwhelming fraction – over 80% – chose happiness over money!
What else doesn’t matter besides money? We might expect that smarter or more informed people are happier. They’re not. Education and intelligence have no correlation with happiness.
Certainly in our increasingly youth-oriented culture, the young are happier than the old – nope. Older people are actually more satisfied with their lives. Good weather? As Londoners, you’ll be glad to hear that people who live in sunnier places are no happier than we are with our often dreary days.
What does matter then?
In short, two things rise to the top of the list: People and purpose.
If you have strong ties to family and friends you are more likely to be happy. And you are more likely to be happy if you are engaged in purposeful activity – something that provides meaning to your life and that engages and interests you deeply.
What about the pessimistic notion I mentioned before that your level of happiness is determined by your genetics and your upbringing? If true, this would seem to make it not worth trying to be any happier. The news is mixed. There are some very good reasons to believe that genes and our childhoods do give us a certain happiness set point. For most people, joyous or sorrowful events move us away from that happiness level, but only temporarily. Eventually – even with extremely positive or negative life events – we tend to return to the set-point.
But the good news is that there is also very strong evidence that the set-point can be altered. It takes effort. There are no simple solutions. No seminar or tape or DVD or workshop is going to make a sad person into a happy one overnight. The keys are the same two factors I mentioned a moment ago: people and purpose. Becoming more engaged in meaningful activity and making and strengthening human ties do make us happier. Helping others makes us happier. Connecting with others makes us happier. And bringing meaning to life through cultivation of gratitude makes us happier.
Let’s stop here for a moment and review… We want to be happy and we know that money and things don’t help us to reach that goal. What does help us reach that goal is to find meaningful activity to engage in and people with whom to connect. Cultivating gratitude and helping others are found to be powerful ways of increasing our happiness.
Does this sound at all familiar? Purpose, commitment, compassion, community, gratitude… If religion didn’t already exist, we would have to invent it!
And this supposition is not just the wishful thinking of your dedicated and passionate minister. It is backed up by numerous studies. People who participate in a religious community are found to be happier – significantly happier – than people who don’t. And not only that, this happiness shows up in some very important ways. Religious people have lower rates of depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide. They even have lower blood pressure!
There is something wonderful in the understanding that is developing of the way happiness arises. As the Dalai Lama expressed in our second reading today, the very actions that we can do to make others happy make us happy as well. We attend both to our own and others' happiness when we commit to helping, to building meaningful relationships, and when we engage in activity that is deeply meaningful.
How could such a happy situation come about? Some might call it a divine plan: a loving and purposeful God created us in such a way that our own happiness is tied to that of others. Others might see the work of evolution here – the most successful individuals were the ones who worked well with others and bonded with them and so finding satisfaction from such behaviour was advantageous. Still others could say it’s simply luck that brought us to this situation.
No matter how it came to pass, there is great hope to be found in this understanding. To find that our individual happiness is tied to the happiness of others is to see ever more clearly that we are all, as Martin Luther King put it, ‘tied in a single garment of destiny’. As a society, we seem to have forgotten this truth – a truth that can be found in various forms within nearly all religious traditions. But we can recover it and here is as good a place to start as any.
And so, I ask again ‘Are you happy?’
Robert Louis Stevenson tells us ‘There is no duty we so underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world.’
So may it be with you.