The One True Path to Happiness (Hint: There Isn't One)

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Chalice lighting

As we come together today,
Some of us feel bright and joyful.
For others, the world is shrouded in the gloom of sadness.
Life brings triumphs and trials,
Casting light and darkness upon our hearts.
May each of us carry an inner light,
A happiness that - no matter our what tomorrow brings -
Can never be extinguished.

Message by Rev Andy Pakula

The theme we have selected for April, May, and June is Happiness. Here we are on the fourth Sunday in the season of happiness and there’s a key foundational question we haven’t addressed: What the heck is happiness?

Would you mind talking to someone near you to try to figure out what happiness is?

---talking in pairs---

What did you come up with?

---comments---

Thank you. Happiness is hard to pin down and so it is even harder to answer in a meaningful and honest way when someone asks: Are you happy?

In conversation with people who knew me when I was in my biotech career or before, it’s a question that is asked by people with a tendency toward depth - people who care about life's purpose and meaning and satisfaction - people who look you straight in the eyes with a warm and caring look on their faces and wait patiently for a response. They’re not asking what you did last weekend or how the weather is. They’re not asking if you are getting paid well or saw any good films lately. They’re asking a more essential question: Are you happy?

Am I? This question is not meant like an obligatory ‘awright mate?’ to be answered with an automatic positive response and nothing about how you actually are. It’s a question that probably deserves a philosophical and psychological discourse because of two huge questions: What is happiness? And, do I have it?

So, the question sits in the air a few moments and I say something like, ‘uh, yeah, I guess so.’ Not the wisest answer. But it gets me thinking. Am I happy? I ponder… I’m not smiling right now. I’m not feeling any great pleasure. I’m angry about racism in Britain. I’m sad that a program didn’t turn out the way I wanted. I’m frustrated that an event needed to be cancelled. I’m dreading writing the next message and can’t imagine why I chose that topic! I’m horrified about what’s going on in the US. I have a lot of things to do. I’m working too many hours.

So, I’m not happy, right? But then, I feel like my life is meaningful and purposeful. While not always fun, the work I do leaves me feeling good at a deeper level - I know that I am doing something that makes a difference in the lives of real people. That work gives me a strong sense of purpose and meaning. My family is well and we love each other. I’m healthy. I’m in relationship with a large number of truly wonderful people - including all of you. And to top it off, there’s my dog, Rumi…

And I realise too that if I were to learn I would die tomorrow - while I wouldn’t be thrilled, I would also have no regrets in having lived this life. I’m satisfied, content - I feel like I have not wasted my life. I’m not always cheerfully joyous, but life - looking back over months and years - feels right and satisfying.

But… am I happy? My answer - after much hesitation - to that question is now ‘yes.’ I am happy, which means I am satisfied with the life I live and do not regret it. I have nothing on my bucket list. I do not need it to change radically in any way.

But happiness must be more than your circumstances being right because - let’s face it - while life has many delights, it is also filled with all kinds of suffering. We lose people we love. Our dreams are dashed by hard realities. We have fights and breakups. We get stuck working in jobs we hate. Our neighbours can make our lives miserable. There are natural disasters. We inevitably get ill. Unless we die young, we have to deal with the challenges of ageing and - finally - every one of us eventually dies.

If happiness depends on having all the right circumstances around us, very very few of us will have a chance of being happy. And not one of us will be happy throughout our whole lives. True happiness must depend upon finding ways of living that help us secure a deeper satisfaction, even in less-than-optimal circumstances. Maybe even in terrible circumstances.

Buddhism offers an approach to happiness despite our circumstances. Essentially, its teachings say that our state of mind is something we can control and we can remain unperturbed despite the things that life throws at us. Our happiness or unhappiness depends - not on what is going on around us - but on how we respond to our circumstances.

Buddhism is not the only path to building an inner happiness. There are other ways too. Cultivating gratitude is one of the best proven paths. Being deeply grateful means that you can always find something good to delight your mind and swell your heart wherever you are. It means being a person who moves through the world with a sense of appreciation and joy.

Meditation, kindness, helping others, exercise, keeping a journal… These are all ways to help develop happiness - ways that our three happiness groups are trying out for three months. In the end, working toward happiness includes two complementary approaches: first - making choices that fill your life with meaning, purpose, and relationship. And second - cultivating habits of mind and body that enable us to endure hardship without losing our essential happiness.

The ways of approaching these two objectives are many. Plenty of articles and programmes and religions will gladly tell you that there is one true answer, but there is not. We are tempted by easy answers because the truth is that none of the methods work overnight. They are all ways of living that lead to happier lives. The paths to enduring happiness are long and require effort, wise decisions, and much practice. But the journey is worth taking. I wish you a committed and ultimately successful journey toward happiness.

Closing words

Life brings joys and sorrows into all of our lives.
Happiness grows with meaning, purpose, and relationship.
But enduring satisfaction in the face of life’s trials calls for something more:
An inner peace that burns strong whatever comes our way,
A constant light that keeps the darkness away.
May your light grow bright,
May you be happy.