The Nature of Happiness

This week, Trinity hosted a showing of the documentary film, The Race to Nowhere, about the pressure children and youth feel in America today in connection with school.  The film tells the story of overworked kids spending hours each night on homework, driven by their anxiety (an anxiety shared and often promoted by their parents) to be stellar students so that they can get into college and, ultimately, have successful careers.  The film documents the profoundly negative effects that this dynamic has on our young people and, by extension, on our society as a whole.

One of the points made in the film is that all of this anxiety to be the best, to win top academic honors and get into the best schools is really based on one dominant vision of what it means to be happy.  And in America, that vision of happiness is rooted in high-paying jobs that allow people to have big houses, nice cars and lots of stuff.   It is the image of happiness that is constantly featured in American media and is lifted up as the ideal that we should all be striving for.

One problem with this American definition of happiness is that it is increasingly difficult to attain.  There are a limited number of high-paying careers, and as the recent recession demonstrates, big houses and fancy cars can easily disappear when the economy runs into trouble.  Another problem with this definition of happiness – and perhaps the biggest problem of all – is that even if one is able to get the high-paying job, buy the big house and drive the fancy car, it doesn’t necessarily lead one to be happy.  In fact, the world in general and America in particular are filled with wealthy people who, according to multiple studies, aren’t very happy.

So, as Race to Nowhere so clearly demonstrates, we are raising generations of children who are pressured into striving for a particular model of success that they are told will lead them to be happy and yet, for many, many people, doesn’t actually make them happy.  In fact, the film shows that many of these kids are becoming psychologically and physically ill in this journey to supposed happiness, and some of them are even taking their own lives.  No route to happiness is worth such a high price.

Faith communities, and the traditions they represent, have a lot to say about happiness, and in the case of the Christian tradition the definition of happiness actually has nothing to do with the accumulation of wealth.  In fact, the Christian definition of happiness has everything to do with giving wealth away!  Including the most valuable thing we have:  ourselves.

For Christians, our goal should be to live a life that is deeply rooted in God.  And when we ask how we are to do that, when we want to know what such a deeply rooted life looks like, we look to the example of Jesus, whom we proclaim to be a human life filled with God.  When we look at the life of Christ with the question, “What leads to happiness?”, we don’t see anything close to the American definition of happiness that is being pressed upon our children.  The definition of happiness in the life of Christ is something quite different – it is a definition comprised of three loves.

Love of God

The first of these loves is the love of God.  For me, to love God is to be in love with, well, love!  And it is to be in love with everything that the love of God touches.  And that, of course, is pretty much everything.  It is also to be in love with the passion of God:  the passion for justice, the passion for what the Jewish tradition likes to name as the repairing of the world.  It is to be in love with creation, to be in love with diversity, to be in love with the fact that there is such a thing as love.  To be in love with awe and wonder.  This is not something that requires anything but to wake up and look with new eyes.  Do I live in this dynamic of God’s love all the time?  Sadly, no.  But there are moments almost every day when I lift my head from what I am doing and allow myself to be overwhelmed by the simple “is-ness” of life, and that moment has the power to lift me out of whatever state I happen to be in and to simply touch life in amazement.  And it makes me happy!

Love of Neighbor

To extend this sense of God’s love, this sense of holy amazement in the face of life, to others is to love one’s neighbor.  To be able to see the person before you not as a problem but as a gift is to love that person.  To recognize another person’s need not as an inconvenience or annoyance but as an opportunity to serve the Christ who dwells within that person is to love one’s neighbor.  To serve others seems often like it requires a lot of us in our over-scheduled lives but when we actually do it, we find a sense of satisfaction and happiness that nothing else really matches.

Love of Self

Yes, we are supposed to love ourselves – remember?  in the same way we love our neighbors.  But this isn’t a kind of narcissistic love that smiles smugly to itself, secure in the “knowledge” that it is better than everyone else around us.  No, the love with which we are called to love ourselves is a love that sees our own imperfections and limitations and realizes that these don’t diminish us.  Rather, they are to be celebrated as a part of who we are.  Imagine if we could teach our children that they are good enough even when they apply themselves and get a C or a D, or when they can’t make the sports team or don’t win first chair in the orchestra section.  To realize at a very deep level that I am loved and accepted as I am is deeply liberating and brings a deep sense of happiness.

I am not suggesting that we should not strive to be the best human beings we can be.  But that has very little to do with outward adornments that we have convinced ourselves make for a happy life.  It has to do with living meaningfully, with cultivating a sense of joy over even the smallest, simplest things in life, and settling into a sense of peace that is rooted in our status as Beloved not in the grades we get, the jobs we hold or the cars we drive.


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