(A chapter in my forthcoming book Questions and Responses: the toughest questions I’ve ever been asked).
+ A young friend had a baby out of wedlock, and when he was born the hospital didn’t let her see him. She had been persuaded to surrender him for adoption. The one-night encounter with a dark-skinned Asian student gave her the only clue about what he might look like, as she subsequently wandered the streets of her home town frightening other women by looking into their prams and strollers to find him… Sad.
+ I enjoy reading each week’s articles by the prolific Australian writer Nikki Gemmel. This morning’s online ABC News has the sad story of her mother’s death by suicide. She’d complained about her debilitating chronic pain, and told Nikki she had no alternative but euthanasia to release her from it. ‘Don’t you want to see the grandkids grow up?’ Nikki would cry. But nothing prepared her for the police on her doorstep one morning in October 2015. ‘Mum had sat down on her favourite chair in front of the TV and ate pills like lollies and drank Baileys Irish Cream until she fell asleep’, revealed Nikki’s brother Paul Gemmell… Sad.
+ I got a phone call back in the 1970s from a major hospital in Sydney at 2.30 am. asking me to come urgently to their Emergency Ward. A female parishioner had walked into the dark waters of the Parramatta River earlier that night, and tried to drown herself. ‘Rowland,’ she said mournfully, ‘all I want is to be happy.’
+ Just yesterday I heard about a brilliant, talented high school girl, who seemed to her peers to ‘have everything’. Just before the final exams she was found dead at the base of a stair-well. The reason? She was the prisoner of everyone’s expectations. Her older sister had been dux of the school, and following in her footsteps was an intolerable burden…
My life’s vocation is an exploration of the notion of happiness: its theory and practice. That’s essentially what this book is about. I have a little counselling practice where I exchange ideas with others about it. I preach about it. I’m always Facebook-posting questions and memes about happiness. I seem to ask myself all the time: ‘How do the happiest people get to be like that?’ I’ve learned that the world is filled with sadness. The vast majority of people just ‘want to be happy…’ But why for so many is happiness so elusive?
More young people in our privileged Western nations are dealing with bouts of depression in recent years, researchers say. The annual rate of people aged 12 to 20 reporting a major depressive episode jumped 37% from 2005 to 2014. Why is that? [Time Nov. 28, 2016, p. 6].
Meanwhile we are bombarded with sometimes-helpful ‘happiness quotes’ like these: ‘You’re never too old to have a happy childhood’. ‘Young men who can’t cry are savages; old men who can’t laugh are fools’. ‘Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be’ (Abraham Lincoln). ‘Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful’ (Albert Schweitzer). ‘Love is when the other person’s happiness is more important than your own’ (H. Jackson Brown, Jr). ‘Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort’ (Franklin D. Roosevelt). Then there’s the saying of many joyful people: ‘There are people worse off than I am’…
And probably the most common attribute advertised in a prospective dating relationship? A ‘GSOH’ (good sense of humour). But, then, why are many comedians not really happy?
The first time I visited The Philippines (on a preaching gig) I spent a week in a village in the middle of Mindanao. One dynamic fascinated me: I often saw older people talking and laughing with children. They enjoyed the same humour. Beautiful. And in several visits to Africa before and during my decade with World Vision, I witnessed plenty of instances of the old adage: ‘People whose feet touch the earth (ie. they’re too poor for shoes) are more able to laugh spontaneously than those who are protected by footwear’.
In a memorable Peanuts cartoon Lucy asks Charlie Brown ‘Did you ever know anyone who was really happy?’ Before she could finish the question Snoopy the dog comes dancing into the next frame. As only Snoopy can he dances his merry way across all frames while Lucy and Charlie watch in amazement. In the last frame Lucy finishes her question: ‘Did you ever know anyone who was really happy… and was still in their right mind?’
Happiness, says the Oxford Dictionary, is the feeling of pleasure or contentment.
How to be happy? It’s one of our most important-and-urgent questions. In the United States, one of their foundational documents, the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, states that ‘we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’
The two most ‘genuinely joyous’ people I’ve known each had abusive husbands. One was verbally – and sometimes physically – abused by her alcoholic partner, but she never ‘lost her joy’. Jan and I visited her about two years after her husband died and asked how she was going. ‘Oh, when he died I lost my joy for a couple of weeks,’ she said, ‘but after that God gave me the gift of joy again!’. The other person taught religious education in NSW schools until well into her eighties. She was married to an angry (confessing Christian) man, but didn’t allow her husband’s outbursts of rage affect her serenity.
How does someone get to be like that?
The most-admired people on the planet in the last 100 years – I’m thinking of Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Dom Helder Camara, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – lived in close quarters with terrible suffering and evil. But they bore their pain mostly with peacefulness and gravitas. They felt – felt deeply – others’ troubles, but seemed to rise above the temptation to be indignant and resentful. What was their secret? Dietrich Bonhoeffer was locked up for months in a dark Nazi prison and just before the second World War ended, he was led out by the guards to be executed. His face was shining with joy which surprised his executioners. How do people get to be like that?
And did you notice that the six people listed above have quite a different philosophy-of-life from each other?
Whilst I agree with the Westminster Shorter Catechism – ‘Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever!’ – for many people that goal is elusive…
A pastor posted this on Facebook: ‘I look at the faces in the church; many of them are anything but joyful: some of them are set so grimly that to smile might cause permanent injury. The same careworn looks, the hard hostility, the dreadful anxieties crease their faces just as much when they leave worship as when they entered… As the Puritan Thomas Watson put it: “The two most difficult things to do: make the wicked sad and the godly joyful.” But in worship we are not mourning a defeat but celebrating a victory; the eucharist is a thankful/joyful celebration.’
Part of the problem is what is sometimes preached in the ‘salvation package’: ‘Come to Jesus, and you’ll have peace and joy and all your problems will be solved.’ Well, friends, sometimes our problems begin at that point: ask any of the millions of Christian martyrs. Let us be wary of cheap evangelism offering a trouble-free Christianity: as some wise person said, Jesus rather offers constant trouble, and his gift of constant joy, because of his constant presence…
Some seem to have been born with ‘happy genes’, and their faith in God sustains them through life’s ups-and-downs. Haydn the composer, when asked why his church music was so cheerful, said ‘I cannot make it otherwise. When I think of God my heart is so full of joy that the notes dance and leap from my pen!’
So what generalisations can we truthfully make about happiness/joy? Try these: not all of this borrowed wisdom might appeal to you, but hopefully some of it will…
1. First, I’m using the terms ‘happiness’ and ‘joy’ somewhat interchangeably. However, some like to differentiate. For example: ‘Joy and happiness are both emotions where a person has feelings of contentment or satisfaction. But both these feelings may differ from each other based on the reasons causing the feeling and the nature of the feeling. J.D. Salinger, the author of Catcher in the Rye
, wrote, “The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” Happiness is an emotion in which one experiences feelings ranging from contentment and satisfaction to bliss and intense pleasure. Joy is a stronger, less common feeling than happiness. Witnessing or achieving selflessness to the point of personal sacrifice frequently triggers this emotion. Feeling spiritually connected to a god or to people.’ [More here: http://www.diffen.com/difference/Happiness_vs_Joy
] Deep lasting joy is a by-product of a clean, selfless life; it’s not an end in itself. C S Lewis (Surprised by Joy
) says a self-centred life which rotates around itself is evil at the core… The more you give yourself away the more you receive; only the one who dies will live. Joy is a corollary of devoting ourselves to others. Michel Quoist: ‘Your joy will begin at precisely the moment you abandon the search for your own personal happiness and seek the happiness of others’. Stop taking yourself so seriously! Get your ego out of the way and connect back to kindness. ‘Compassion is feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too’ (Frederick Buechner). George Bernard Shaw: ‘True joy in life is in being used for a purpose recognised as a mighty one… being a force for change instead of a feverish selfish little clod of grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.’
2. I have heard this so often from the most unlikely sources: ’Life is not “supposed to be fair” so let us accept life – all of it – with gratitude.’ Know that there is no single way that life is ‘supposed’ to be. George Matheson: ‘O joy that seekest me through pain’. Joy is not simply ‘pleasure’ or ‘fun’ or the absence of pain. Demanding that life meet our expectations is a sure fire recipe for a miserable existence. Life can be for many of us a game with no rules. Life just happens to us regardless of our best intentions. Our only path to joy lies in being open to receiving whatever life throws at us – with gratitude. Say to yourself ‘Life is a wonderful gift; I will surrender to it and receive it!’
4. Happiness can’t be experienced without courage. I read recently of a 50-year-old – Brett Archibald – who fell overboard one night at about 2.15 am 100 kilometres out to sea off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. In his compelling book Alone: Lost Overboard in the Indian Ocean he describes how he fought to survive for more than 28 hours before being found in that vast ocean. He was helped at a crucial time when as he dozed off to sleep a couple of seagulls pecked him on the nose!
5. In Byron Katie’s A Thousand Names for Joy, she shares this mantra: “I am a lover of what is.” Happiness is ‘acceptance of what is’. It’s not dependent on winning prizes for being the best at this and that. A wise psychiatrist-friend says to many of his clients: ‘Don’t let what describes you define you’.
6. Develop and maintain firm friendships: and especially well-cultivated continuing contacts with your extended family. Friends for the vast majority of us (a small percentage of ‘severe introverts’ might be excused from this generalisation) are necessary to keep us ‘constructively connected’ and sane! And search prayerfully for a ‘Spiritual Friend’ – someone who loves you, and ‘listens both to you and to God at the same time’.
7. True happiness has an element of ‘selfless gratefulness’ mixed in with it. One of the sayings of joyful people: ‘There are others worse off than I am’.
8. Then there is the wonder of God’s acceptance: ‘God has forgiven you – let no one accuse you, not even yourself!’ My suggestion: develop a prayer-routine (call it ‘mindfulness’ if you wish) where you meditate/contemplate on God and life and goodness and everything for which you’re thankful, and remind yourself that you’re a very fortunate human being!
9. Occasionally the gift of happiness is generated by the inspiration of a ‘painful life lived well.’ A ‘disabled/differently abled’ child often brings real joy to a family. So in some mysterious way joy and pain can exist side by side (but those of us whose lives are relatively pain-free mustn’t judge those for whom their pain is intolerable). Maybe the biblical concept of ‘joy’ usually or always relates to a time of suffering, especially grief / weeping. eg, Psalm 30: 5 – Rebuke is in his anger, and life is in his pleasure; at evening, weeping will spend the night, and in the morning – joy! Also Psalm 126:5: Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.
10. Live serendipitously. Jesus encouraged us to enjoy the company of little children. And he suggests we ‘Look at the birds! God cares for them!’ (Matthew 6:26). Charles Hartshorne (a philosopher who offered 16 proofs for the existence of God, and was an ornithologist) reminds us that ‘Some birds, like some people, sing for the pure joy of it… God enjoys the happiness of all of his creatures!’
11. Choose your parents well! (Should this be #1)? When I’m honest, I would have to say that the greatest influence-for-good in my young life was my mother. My earliest memories are hearing her sing ‘Alexander’s Hymns’ while doing the housework in our Oatley (a suburb of Sydney in NSW) home. She encouraged me to memorise Psalm 23 (at the age of three!). From my twenties – 60 years ago – my best friend has been my wife, Jan.
12. STUFF. Our notions of happiness are often about collecting ‘stuff’ (money, accolades/respect, experiences, power, health, answers to tough questions – you make up your own list for a talk with your spiritual advisor). It’s about the ‘addition’ of ‘goodies’… Happiness, we imagine, is something we obtain for a price (holidays, what advertisers sell you, something in a bottle – liquid or pills, whatever’s in your bank account…). Someone on the street was interviewed for a newspaper, and said: ‘I will not be sucked in by fashionistas’ declarations that something is “an essential” or a “must have”. It’s clothing, people – not oxygen. Get a grip!’ Joy is what a true Christ-follower has when all the stuff is taken away… It’s about ‘subtraction’.
13. JESUS’ BEATITUDES in the Sermon on the Mount summarise his priorities: ‘Blessed (or as William Barclay translates it, ‘Oh the sheer joy of those who’) are the poor in spirit, those who mourn (really?), the meek…’ Can Jesus be serious? In the Upper Room (John 16:22) Jesus says to his friends: ‘These things have I spoken to you that my joy might be in you, and that your joy might be full. No one can take your joy from you’.
Matthew 5:3-10 (The Message): ’You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule… You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you… You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought… You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat… You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for… You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
14. The sentiments of Jesus’ followers, in The New Testament, comprise one of the most joyous collections of writings in the world. It opens with joy at the birth of Jesus and ends with angels singing ‘Hallelujah!’ The notes of joy are everywhere – eg. in the jail at Philippi Paul is singing hymns! And later to the Christians in that city, he writes a letter about joy. Even though Paul had a serious temperament, sometimes didn’t enjoy good health, and endured beatings/stoning/shipwrecks etc. he encourages his friends to ‘Rejoice, again I say, rejoice!’. [ More… http://jmm.org.au/articles/29912.htm ]
15. Those who try hardest to be happy are often the most miserable. Real happiness comes as a by-product to those who are involved in worthwhile or enjoyable activities, so that they forget to ask themselves whether they are happy or not… ‘Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you. But when you turn your attention to other things, it comes and sits on your shoulder.’
16. Get your ego out of the way and connect back to kindness. (A surrealist painter is someone who ignores the flowers and paints the manure heap in the corner of the field). So be grateful for all of life: each of us has been infinitely blessed – beginning with the gift of life itself. Whatever may appear to be missing or broken on any particular day, our glass is not half full, it is 99.9% full. I don’t have to envy those with talents more outstanding than mine. For example, the man who I admired as having the best gift with impromptu words of anyone I’ve listened to – Robin Williams – was not, apparently, a really happy person…
17. Start today: Whatever course-correction you need to do, start today. Not tomorrow – today. Well, if not today put some time aside at the beginning of a new year, or a new chapter in your life to do what the mystics call an ‘examen’. ’Covet the best gifts’ says Jesus’ follower, Paul – but with the noble intent of helping others (rather than being merely decorative, or a receiver of accolades). Maybe buy or borrow Frommer’s 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference (Andrew Mersmann). It’s about travellers deciding that the best way to recharge may not be lying on a beach, but stepping outside of their normal routine to make a difference in the lives of others. Take your pick: Sharing your knowledge: teaching vacations (or, for Evangelical Christians, a ‘Mission Trip’); Working with children: orphanages, at-risk youth, street kids, sponsoring a child from a poor country; Working with the disabled; Bridging cultures: working with indigenous peoples; Crossing generations: helping seniors; Getting political: human rights, refugee relief, community organising; Peace-building: conflict resolution and security; Religious service: retreats and faith-based assistance; Bringing expertise: teaching a specialised skill or field of knowledge; Serving your kids: children-friendly trips that will open their eyes to the world… The list is endless!
18. And maybe start with this thought: ’Happiness is what I feel when I’m close to my own soul; joy is what I feel when I’m close to God.’ And this: ‘Real happiness comes as a by-product when I am involved in worthwhile activities, so that I’ll learn to forget to ask myself whether I am happy or not…’ And when you’ve settled on a couple of ‘resolutions’ tell a friend – or even your friends on social media. (President Kennedy did it famously in 1962 with his commitment to send a man to the moon ‘before this decade is out’…). I like the cheeky Melbourne columnist Wendy Squires who wrote a list of ‘wishes for the New Year’ including: ‘I will vacuum even when guests aren’t arriving’; ‘I’ll write, not just for work, but for the love of it’; ‘I will continue to defend Islam to the ignorant and bigoted, despite being an atheist. Some of the most generous, kind people I know worship Allah. No religion is without its fanatics and zealots.’ (Now there’s something for another chapter). And: ‘Having lost two friends to suicide this past year, I will scream from the rooftops – “THERE IS HELP IF YOU REACH FOR IT”. You do not have to live with that pain, I promise!’
19. Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ describes his journey to a fork in the road, and he decided to take ‘the road less traveled’. M. Scott Peck wrote a best-seller entitled The Road Less Traveled. And what’s the road he’s referring to? ‘Trouble’. His thesis? ‘Life is hard. Get used to it!’ (my version). For followers of Jesus, we have his assurance: ‘[Whichever road you travel] I am with you, to the close of the age.’ I like that reassuring promise… However, seriously: if you’re chronically unhappy/depressed, don’t ever, ever, ever, give up! Ask around: someone will know a good psychologist/psychiatrist (I know a few here in Australia) who bulk-bill: it’s all covered by Medicare. And they’re good!
20. Finally, from a Facebook friend: ‘My favourite book of all time on this subject was written by one of my professors of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, Dr Archibald D Hart, 15 Principles of Happiness (1988) (‘Happiness grows out of choosing to live harmoniously with your life circumstances—whatever they are….’) . PS. He was also one of my professors at Fuller Seminary, and we were privileged to host the Harts for a meal in our home in Melbourne)…
The chapter headings are …
01 Happiness Is Relative
02 Happiness Is a Choice
03 Happiness Is Getting Your Eyes Off Others
04 Happiness Is Being Able to Forgive
05 Happiness Is Living in the Here and Now
06 Happiness Is Appreciating the Little Things
07 Happiness Is Living with Reality
08 Happiness is Keeping Your Expectations in Check
09 Happiness Is Being Yourself
10 Happiness is Being Able to Enjoy Pleasure
11 Happiness Is Wanting the Right Things
12 Happiness Is Something You Learn
13 Happiness Is Developing Close Relationships
14 Happiness Is Having the Right Attitudes
15 Happiness Is Praying Your (God’s) Will Be Done
And a final exhortation from Pablo Cassals: ‘The situation is hopeless. We must take the next step.’
And from Soren Kierkegaard: ‘Life has to be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.’
And this: ’The darkest night has stars in it; a Christian ought to be someone who sees the stars rather than the darkness.’
‘Don’t worry. Be happy!’