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What makes us Happy?

June 04, 2009

In the current Atlantic Monthly, Joshua Wolf Shenk has written a stunning article called “What Makes Us Happy?” which is on the web and well worth your time.  It chronicles a 72 year longitudinal study of 268 Harvard undergraduates who are now either dead or in their eighties  exploring their lives and the seasons of their lives and of course – remember the title - what makes them happy.

 

The study elegantly tells us some things we already knew:  that lives are complex and tragic and glorious, and  sometimes people with much potential are terribly disappointing, and sometimes the most unlikely people blaze forth with power.  What was new for me is the scientific angle on what makes us happy.  And guess what it turns out to be?

 

After years of following  people a lot like some of you reading this little blog, the scientists say what makes you happy are the capacities for and the experiences of:  love, compassion, gratitude, awe(an underrated capacity), forgiveness, joy, hope, and trust and faith (which are two words for the same phenomenon).  Those aren't extra duties that goody-goody people take on.  Those qualities are at the core of happiness.  I don't believe we tell that enough to each other or to  seekers.  It turns out happiness and Jesus are a lot more familiar with each other than the church has had the wisdom to reveal.

 

For of course, the way we develop those capacities is through and only through others.  Does this ring any bells?  Like Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your mind and your soul and your neighbor as yourself.  

 

I believe this happiness-making is so profoundly core to the mission of the church that we totally ignore it.  And happiness is what people are starving for is it not?  Why don't we talk about the happiness of following Jesus more?  We leave happiness out of the invitation as  if were somehow only tacky Christianis who would be crass enough to just want to be happy.  And here all the time, the quest for happiness goes straight through the heart of the Christian story.  That's a fact, just like evolution!!

 Of course there are all kinds of variables in every life and seasons upon seasons.  And in reading this article about these privileged people, you  realize that everybody will go through very hard patches and disappointments and crises and all of that - as well as the very good and glorious stuff. And of course some time or another we all go through enough to kill us.  But there is a difference between a life  with an arc of connection and meaning  and a life that just sort of flounders and shrivels, and the difference in a crummy life and a rich one  is the quality of our relationships. For it is in relationship that we become human beings at full stretch with the capacities that God gave us to shine with love,  compassion, gratitude, awe, forgiveness, joy, hope, and trust.  And that makes us happy.

 

I think we church people need some "rebranding" as the PR people say. We are actually the party people, the good time charlies.  Not because we have an exclusive party with God.   We don't.   As Rabbi Abraham Heschel writes – nobody needs to come to a faith community to find God.  God is everywhere and all those people who say they can find God in the mountains or the beach or whatever, we get that.  They are right.  We don’t come to church to find God.  We come to church to find ‘congregation’ – to find people – as flawed as everywhere else – but  in congregation – we  admit what matters to us and we take the time to pray for and develop the capacities for  – love, compassion, gratitude, awe, forgiveness, joy, hope, trust, faith -   to become more and more human beings at full stretch.  Which in some crazy deep inexplicable way, makes us happy.     Go figure.

 

 


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