The Duty of Joy

Today, our month of joy comes to an end! That sounds a bit sad, doesn't it? But, it's not an end to joy. It should be an end to talking about it and a prod to get out and do it! 

Where have we been? 

We have talked about what joy is and what it isn't. We have talked about the fact that living with joy is - to a very great extent - a choice we make. It is a way we aim to live rather than simply a function of the external events that come our way - accidents of birth, or fate, or luck. We considered that joy already surrounds us - that it is not so much creating joy that we need, I suggested, but putting aside those barriers we have built to keep joy out. 

And then, last week - on the occasion of the end of Ramadan and the celebration of Eid-Ul-Fitr - we talked about the importance of our own self-discipline in bringing long-lasting joy to our lives. Today, as we complete our month on joy and look forward to a month of 'Living beautifully', I want to talk about joy in a bit of a different way. 

Religion can fall short when it comes to joy. It can be very demanding - full of thou shalts and thou shalt nots... This kind of religion had its purpose. Prohibitions against murder and adultery and even drinking provided some civility and order in a time where there weren't police forces. Some dietary rules may have kept people away from food that could make them sick. And rules about dress, hair, and a whole range of other seemingly arbitrary regulations helped to set a group apart from others - to create a sense of community and to avoid fusing with the surrounding populace. 

Rules about worship and prayer and other spiritual practices are the aspects of religion that may be most personally helpful. Aside from any supernatural intervention, these prescribed behaviours can have tremendous psychological and emotional benefits. They give us a time to pause and centre ourselves. They help us to feel connected. They help us to understand ourselves and others better. 

But rather little of religion has traditionally been about joy. And this is especially true - I hesitate to say - of liberal religion. Liberal religion tends toward thinking and words. At the other end of the religious spectrum is a more literal kind of religion that often embraces emotion and intuition more readily. 

Think about the heated enthusiasm of a charismatic Christian service, for example. There, a love for Jesus leads to a tremendous outpouring of emotion. In mystical traditions, joy is often central to the religious experience. Hasidic Jews dance and sing and celebrate as part of their religious practice. Sufis speak of the divine as the Beloved and express their joy and love in poetry and song and sometimes in movement. Christianity and Hinduism have their equivalents to these powerful experiences. 

And liberals are often left with something that can be rather intellectual, rather stiff, and - all too often - very, very worthy. 

For us, somehow, feeling the love is not enough. We know that the problems of the world require more. They require our involvement and our action. 

This is important and good, but it can too easily lead to the sense that our own happiness doesn't really matter much - that we need to forgo happiness and focus only on others to be a good person. We might even be a tiny bit judgemental of those who - in our humble opinions - focus too much on their own joy. 

And with so much pain and struggle going on the world - and even close at home - the words of our last song: "Keep on the sunny side of life", could seem a bit saccharine and self-indulgent. 

How about "don't worry - be happy" or its Swahili equivalent popularized in the Lion King film - Hakuna Matata? 

I have to admit that in my liberal worthiness, I've often thought that such an attitude betrayed a tremendous lack of responsibility and understanding of our interconnectedness. Remember such important truths as "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere"? How can we say "don't worry - be happy" when people are being killed in Syria, persecuted in Uganda, cut off from benefits and sleeping rough right here in London? 

And then I learned about a study published in 2008. It was in a very reputable journal and I fully believe - with my scientist hat on - that it is solid and believable. 

The study had this very exciting title "Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study." You have to hand it to these scientists - they really know how to come up with a catchy name. 

The study looked at 4739 people who were followed over a 20 year time-span. It asked how happiness might be related to social networks that related the various participants. 

Here's what they found: "Clusters of happy and unhappy people are visible in the network, and the relationship between people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation." 

In other words, happiness in contagious. If you have casual social contact with a happier person, your chance of being happy increases by 34 percent. If you are the happy person, the other person's chance goes up that much. 

If you make another person happy, they can make a third person happy. Your happiness has far ranging effects, even to the friend of a friend of a friend. 

Personal joy is starting to seem like a rather more worthy goal now, isn't it. 

No one ever became less happy because of giving happiness. 

In words attributed to the Buddha, "Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, And the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared." 

Happiness is a gift you can give without decreasing your own happiness balance - in fact your happiness increases through the reflection of the people who become more happy around you. 

What if you consider that happy people are more generous, more compassionate, more willing to help others, and even less likely to be accidentally injured? 

Happiness is serious business. And, I might add, with the potential impact we can make on the world through our own happiness, it is something of a duty to make our best efforts to be happy. 

Now I know that a duty to be happy sounds a bit odd. As a commandment, it sounds even harder than the biblical big 10. 

But happiness is indeed something we can work on. The tools are there. The facts are known. Purpose. Community. Serving others. Practicing gratitude... You've made some of the right steps just being here. Remember that your happiness is not a selfish matter - it is an important way to make a difference in the world. 

This is how I wish to draw this month's focus on joy to a close - with the new commandment "thou shalt strive to be happy." 

I wish for you happiness and that your joy will spread far and wide, helping to make a more peaceful and loving world for all beings. 

May it be so.