Friday, July 31, 2015

What does it mean to be happy? Part 2

Jeremiah 23.1-6, 2 Corinthians 12.2-10, Mark 6.30-34

The Christian approach to happiness finds it through engagement not detachment, through loving God and others as much as we love ourselves.

Like a Greek philosopher, Jeremiah sees the ideal leader as someone who should, above all, be wise and just, although he uses a very Biblical term to sum up what he’s looking for - righteousness. A righteous leader will not only be at peace within themselves, but they’ll make other people happy too. The opposite of being like this - being unwise, unjust and self obsessed - is evil. It doesn’t lead to happiness, it brings woe upon the leader. Woe is the very opposite of happiness, it’s unhappiness, and that’s what the bad leader is going to reap.

Of course, Jeremiah is thinking about kings, but his prophecy can be applied to any sort of relationship where people are called upon to to guide and inspire one another - marriage, parenthood, relationships between workers and their supervisors and managers, between congregations and their stewards and ministers, between friends. We can all bring happiness to others by being considerate and thoughtful, and that is the only way for us to find lasting happiness too. The alternative, behaving in a destructive and self obsessed way, only does harm to all concerned.

Paul says that once, in a vision, he was caught up into Paradise. But that isn't where he found the happiness he boasts of to the Corinthians. Instead, he tells us that God's power is perfected in weakness and so he will boast about the times when he was unwell, when he faced insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities, for it was then that he was able to rely solely on Jesus for any sense of contentment in life. This is stoical even by Stoic standards. Paul is content to find meaning and happiness in every moment of his life, whether good or bad, simply through knowing that he belongs to Jesus. It’s not happiness based on achievement, or wisdom, or roundedness, or a belief in oneself. It’s not about floating free, above all the troubles that might otherwise weigh him down. It’s not even happiness based on detachment from all these things that are happening to him, although it’s perhaps closer to the Buddhist way of thinking than to any of the other philosophies and ideas that I’ve mentioned. Instead, though, it’s happiness based on trust.

Interestingly, in our Gospel reading Jesus does encourage his disciples to make some time for themselves. He certainly doesn’t see work, even a vocation to be an apostle - someone commissioned by him to go out and spread his message - as the route to happiness.

Elsewhere he says we are to love others, but only as much as we love ourselves. Yet Jesus isn’t offering happiness through self discovery, or through the Stoic path of living in the moment. His instruction to the disciples to be by themselves and rest awhile comes close, like Paul’s prescription, to the Buddhist way of detachment. However, the defining hallmark of Jesus’ way to fulfilment is compassion. It is in showing compassion to others that he finds the true way to live.
The Bible’s recipe for happiness has three key ingredients, then - righteous living, trust and compassion. These are what we need to seek if we wish, in the words of the song, to ‘Be happy!’

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

What does it mean to be happy? Part 1

Ezekiel 2.1-7, 2 Corinthians 2.1-12, Mark 6.7-9


Here are some lyrics from a song that got several young people put in prison just for dancing along to it. See if you recognise what all the fuss was about.
It might seem crazy what I'm about to say;
Sunshine she's here, you can take a break,
I'm a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don't care baby, by the way.
Bring me down, I can't nothing,
Bring me down, my level's too high,
Bring me down, I said.
Here come bad news, talking this and that, yeah,
Well, give me all you got, and don't hold it back, yeah,
Well, I should probably warn you I'll be just fine, yeah,
No offence to you, don't waste your time.
Here's why…
Can anyone tell me how that sentence is supposed to end? Why is the singer feeling lighter than air, so that even bad news can’t bring him down to earth? Let’s play the song and see if that helps to joy your memories. And, while we’re about it, see if you can spot how many Minions are dancing to the the tune!
The singer is Pharrell Williams. And here’s why he’s feeling so good. he says it’s...
Because I'm happy!
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof,
Because I'm happy!
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth,
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you,
Clap along if you feel like that's what you wanna do!
Are you happy? And, if so, what is it that makes you feel happy? Does coming to church make you happy? Or is it a chore. something you feel you’ve got to do, and happiness can wait until afterwards? And what does it mean to be really happy, anyway? Can following Jesus make us happy?
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You might think that only people of faith or philosophers would be concerned about the meaning of happiness. It's not natural territory for governments, is it? And yet the government would love to know what makes people feel happy.
The paradox facing politicians is that life was pretty spartan in the 1950s. We were still recovering from a world war. Our diet was monotonous. Food was expensive. Hardly anyone owned a car. Little tiny, grainy black and white television pictures - which were only broadcast for a few hours each day - were a luxury that many people still couldn’t afford. There was virtually no central heating. And yet research has shown that people were generally happier in the 1950s than we are today.
What’s the explanation? Why hasn’t greater prosperity made people feel better off? Why, for that matter, do many wealthy people seem just as unhappy, if not more unhappy, than people who are just getting by? This is so puzzling that three years ago the government created an official well-being index, to monitor how happy people are feeling.
How to make people happy isn’t a new problem. Greek philosophers certainly considered it, and they concluded that, to feel we’re leading a good life, to be happy, we need three things. First, we need enough money and possessions to feel comfortable. Second, we need be in reasonable health. But - above all - they believed that if we want to be really happy, we need to feel wise and virtuous.
Why are people so discontented today? It can’t be that we’re worse off than we were in the 1950s. It can’t be that our health is worse. So maybe it’s the wise and virtuous bit that’s missing from our lives.
To solve the problem of happiness some people have set up new academy schools with the aim of building children’s characters, to see if they can make the children feel more wise and virtuous. Linking school with happiness might seem a totally incongruous idea. I know I couldn't wait to leave school. From an early age I was counting down the days, mainly because I loathed PE and swimming lessons. But the idea is that a happy, rounded person needs not just to be good at passing exams but to enjoy sport, music and the arts, and to learn how to be a good citizen. Maybe people used to be happier in the 1950s because that’s what schools used to do for them!
Of course, there are other competing ideas about how to be happy. One of these is that we find fulfilment and happiness through hard work, and that the most unhappy people are those who are unemployed. If you subscribe to this view, the ideal life is one where work and leisure time become completely indistinguishable because we enjoy working so much that we never want to take time off.
Success would then be measured by what we do for a living, and achievement by what we make, or how much impact we have on others and the world around us. A happy person becomes someone who never switches off - who checks their emails late at night, who wakes up dreaming about new ways of working, and who networks all the time with their friends and acquaintances to find out about new career openings and exploit new sales opportunities.
There certainly are people who say that they’re lucky enough to find fulfilment, and even happiness, in working, and some people would see the origin of this mindset in the Christian idea of a God-given vocation. But there are just as many people who have dull, routine jobs from which they derive no satisfaction and where there is little sense of achievement. And there’s also plenty of worthwhile work which isn’t properly rewarded. For some people, therefore, happiness comes from making the most of their leisure time.
So how about a refinement of this approach? Pursuing our own happiness and fulfilment through hard work and productive achievement isn’t going to work for everyone, but how about finding happiness by learning to feel good about ourselves? Almost anyone might be able to try and do that.
The argument goes like this, whatever our own values might be, whether we like doing nothing or prefer to be busy, whether we like to be surrounded by family and friends or prefer to be alone, we can find happiness simply by feeling good about ourselves and believing that we matter. Selfishness, or self-centeredness, then becomes the best way of getting the most out of life.
What we shouldn’t do, the argument continues, is throw our lives away by sacrificing our own time, and health and happiness for the sake of other people who don’t mean anything to us personally. In fact, trying to make other people happy can become a substitute for being happy ourselves. As an aphorism on the Internet puts it,'Always be yourself... unless you can be Batman!'
Of course, most of us can’t be Batman, so this kind of logic is the reason why parents are told that, unless they feel happy, and put themselves first, their children will never be happy either. It’s the reason why young people are told that they must believe in themselves if they’re going to get the best out of life. But does high self-esteem actually make people happy or does it make us self-obsessed? Does it make us self-satisfied or insecure? Is it possible to focus on our own happiness without neglecting the happiness of others?
That's why philosophers and people of faith have suggested different remedies. Stoics, for instance, believe that happiness is found by choosing how we live and, in particular, by living each moment to the full, with heightened sensitivity. And we should try to do this whether the experiences we're having are good or bad, enjoyable or painful; whether we're experiencing moments of birth or moments of death, the first flush of true love or the pangs of final separation. Life is short and every moment deserves to be appreciated if we want to lead a happy life.
The film ‘About Time’, by Richard Curtis - who wrote ‘The Vicar of Dibley’, is a modern interpretation of Stoicism. The protagonist, Tim Lake, discovers on his 21st birthday that male members of his family carry a gene which allows them to travel back in time and relive the same experiences over and over again. He goes through a day buying coffee, doing things at work, and talking to his wife. Then he goes back in time and extracts more happiness from the day - for himself and everyone else he meets - by being nicer to the girl who sold him the coffee, more thoughtful in his dealings with his colleagues and clients at work, and kinder to his wife at the end of the day. But eventually he learns this isn't really necessary. We just have to live each moment to the full the first time we experience it.
An even more ancient variant of this is Buddhism. Whereas Stoics seek ways of coping with, and remaining happy in spite of, pain and suffering, by trying to write their own script to maximise everyone's happiness, Buddhists seek happiness through a process of detachment from the world.
Detachment doesn't mean 'not caring' about events and other people - like someone watching The News on television and thinking, 'Thank goodness I'm not affected by any of that appalling suffering!' Detachment means letting go of our own craving for happiness, and our doomed attempts to preserve it when it comes along, since this will only make us selfish. Instead, it means finding true inner happiness by striving to accept life as it is and by showing compassion to others without thinking at all about our own feelings.
Contrast that with the Christian approach to happiness, which finds it through engagement not detachment, through loving God and others as much as we love ourselves. Like a good Stoic, Ezekiel is told not be afraid of anything, even of scorpions and thorns. But he isn't to be detached, or to construct his own narrative. He can't choose how to live and he isn't to listen to the wisdom of others. Happiness comes from speaking with God, doing God’s will and sharing God's word with others.
Paul says that once, in a vision, he was caught up into Paradise. But that isn't where he found the happiness he boasts of to the Corinthians. Instead, he tells us that God's power is perfected in weakness and so he will boast about the times when he was unwell, when he faced insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities, for it was then that he was able to rely solely on Jesus for any sense of contentment in life. This is stoical even by Stoic standards. Paul is content to find meaning and happiness in every moment of his life, whether good or bad, simply through knowing that he belongs to Jesus. It’s not happiness based on achievement, or wisdom, or roundedness, or a belief in oneself. It’s not about floating free, above all the troubles that might otherwise weigh him down. It’s not even happiness based on detachment from all these things that are happening to him, although it’s perhaps closer to the Buddhist way of thinking than to any of the other philosophies and ideas that I’ve mentioned. Instead, though, it’s happiness based on trust.
And that’s the sort of happiness which Jesus demands of his disciples - a willingness to find all that we need in obeying his command, in sharing his message and in trusting him whatever may happen