In Pursuit of Happiness
Rev. Anderson

 


For about a week, I’ve been reading as many books on Happiness I could get my hands on.  I thought initially that I would start this out by arguing over whether or not; it made sense to even pursue happiness.  But within the first couple of pages of each text, it seemed pretty clear to me, that it is our responsibility as human beings to work on our happiness, on joy in our life, to the best of our ability.  Even so much so that I think it is our religious and moral obligation to do so.

Now why would I say that, that to be happy is a religious and moral obligation?  Because individual happiness is more than a personal concern.  As one author put it, “We have a moral obligation to our partners, friends, colleagues, and family to be as happy as we can be.”  Why?- because by the nature of our actions, and words we possess the ability to make other people unhappy, becoming the source of their unhappiness.  We owe it to those we love, to work on our own happiness.  As proof of how detrimental a life without happiness can be, ask a child how painful it was to grow up with an unhappy parent, or a parent who lives in misery because of their unhappy child, no matter what their age.

Secondly and as important, it is a fact that people act more decently when they are happy.  I want you to think about this once. Let’s take something we do almost every day.  Driving our car. I know that when I am in a fowl mood, I swear at my fellow travelers, I drive more aggressively, and I am ungenerous driver.  When my mood is filled with mirth- I am receptive to letting other cars in, I slow down, I let other people’s aggressive driving roll off my back.  In short, I am a more decent human being when I am happy. Again, I am a more decent human being when I am happy.   And personally, I think this world could use as many functioning decent human beings it can get.

Thirdly, almost every religious tradition, calls us to rejoice in and extend our happiness out, in response to the creator, to creation, or to fully engage in this moment by working on our happiness. The Hebrew scriptures proclaim: This is the day that the Lord hath made; rejoice and be glad in it.”

I resonate with the words of G.K. Chesterton who said, “You may have all the solemnity you wish in your neckties, but in anything important) such as sex, death and religion) you must have mirth or you will have madness.”

Now I can give you all the reasons for why to work on your happiness, while simultaneously recognizing that I know it is not an easy task. I know we all get bogged down in paying the bills, going to the dentist, waiting in line at the DMV. I know as well as you do, it is easier to be unhappy.  To be unhappy doesn’t take any work, for there is a whole confluence of things that can make us unhappy each day:  conflict with a boss, child or parent, differing political agendas and positions, mean spirited comments directed toward ourselves or someone we love.  I could go on, the list is long and cumbersome. Like the weight on old Marley’s chain in A Christmas Carol, our lives to, are burdened with that which brings unhappiness, discomfort, frustration.  So, I don’t say that we need to work on this as if it is an easy task.

But to be happy, to meet our moral imperative, and obligation, not only for ourselves, but also for those we surround ourselves with, we have to find the energy and initiative to work on our happiness.  Interestingly enough, the more I read on the subject the more I felt another tactic was in order.  Because, obviously there are things that squelch our happiness that we could work on:
We could stop wallowing in self-pity or victim-hood,
We could stop comparing our lives to others
We could stop engaging in addictive behavior
We could take our ongoing depression seriously and get professional help
We could lower our expectations of situations and other people.

But beyond that there isn’t a lot that keeps us from a happy life.  On the other hand, it seems there are a few actions, that if taken on as primary goals, then happiness surely is the positive by- product of those actions.

Richard Lessor noted: Happiness is like a butterfly.  The more you chase it, the more it will elude you.   But if you turn your attention to other things, it comes and softly sits on your shoulder.

To live a happy life, make goodness a priority over being happy.
 

Our Universalist forebears asserted, “Holiness and true happiness are inseperably connected.”  That by following the path of goodness, we could be “happified” as they said. “In short, we humans prove most joyous when we are most just and merciful-living at our noblest.” - Towle

Ram Dass, the veritable spiritual leaders who heads the SEVA foundation, has come up with 3 simple rules for doing holy work.
1. Do something to reduce suffering in the world
2. Grow in the process
3 Have fun doing it.

I love this list, because it gets at the path to goodness, and one of the means to “happify” us.  That goodness’s by-product is happiness.

There is an old Egyptian myth that teaches a valuable lesson about joy and the purpose of life.  After death, Egyptians believed they would be confronted by the God Osiris with a quiz that had to be answered honestly. It was a two-part question: First did you find joy?  And second, did you bring joy?

Think about those questions.  They are not about what we produce, create, particular talents, or good words. For the Egyptians, the purpose of a human beings life on earth, could be answered simply by asking: Did you find joy and did you bring joy during your lifetime?

In order to bring joy, you need to do good.  Doing good, can turn up in so many different forms, it may mean you get particularly good at giving hope to the hopeless.  It may mean that you contribute to giving the world more beauty.  It may mean that you help heal those who are sick or infirm.  It may mean that you work to save the world from its often-stupid occupants.  When you do good, the natural by-product is happiness

As Robert Ingersoll says:
Happiness is the only good.  The time to be happy is now.  The place to be happy is here.  The way to be happy is to make other people happy.

To live a happy life, we must practice our need and desire to change others and accept ourselves with our own quirks.
 
Ah, to change others.  How many of us get ourselves in loops about the behavior of a lover, a friend, and a colleague.  We convince ourselves that if they would just change, then we could finally be happy.  We so often struggle with relationships because we see the potential in another human being, we love them for who they could become, not who they are.   We find ourselves saying such things as:
 
If he weren’t so shy, he would be easier to bring to parties, and the bulk of our social life wouldn’t rest on my shoulders, and I could be happy.
Or if they she like to get out of the house more, weren’t such a homebody, I might feel like I was really living, and I could be happy.

We so often seek ways to change our partner, or friends.  But in order to generate a happy life, we must let go of our desire for others to change.  We can change ourselves.  Not others.  When we can accept that, happiness over many situations will follow.  AA prayer that speaks to that:
Lord give me the strength to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I can’t and the wisdom to know the difference.

I had this quote by a fellow in my folder on acceptance for years, and it gets at what I’m talking about, he says:
“As I see it, we know we’re truly grown up when we stop trying to fix people.  About all we can really do for people is love them and treat them with kindness. That goes for ourselves too.  That goes for ourselves especially.  I’ve given up on self-improvement (I’ve also decided I no longer have to floss.)  Fact is, my character is pretty much set, and even if I were in perfect health, I would have to accept the following: truths: my desk will always be messy: I will never stop being bothered by other people’s errors of grammar; I don’t find badly done children’s school concerts “cute”: I pick my nose: I notice beautiful women: I can’t stand laziness, whether physical, moral or intellectual: I cry during sappy father and son moments in movies: I will drop almost anything to watch my daughter comb her hair.  For better or worse, these things are beyond fixing.  Accepting ourselves means accepting the whole package, the whole sour and sweet lovely mess that we are.”

I found his words comforting.  For indeed if we can accept ourselves for who we innately are, we won’t beat ourselves up as much, we won’t have so many arguments with our disposition, or be disgruntled by our own failures. Now unlike him, I think we all have an obligation and room for improvement with a few things: our kindness, our honesty, our compassion and our capacity to love and be loved.  But I agree with him, that if we can accept those basic natures in our ourselves, and stop struggling with ourselves, then happiness will be a by-product of our actions.
 

To live a happy life, find more contentment in life.

There is a Jewish proverb that says: When life isn’t the way you like it, like it the way it is. What can’t be avoided can be welcomed.”

To find contentment in what we have is to work on accepting life as we have it.  There is a Zen Buddhist exchange that addresses this.
 
Traveler:  What kind of weather are we going to have today?

Shepherd: The kind of weather I like.

Traveler; How do you know it will be the kind of weather you like?

Shepherd: Having found out, sir, that I cannot always get what I like, I have learned always to like what I get.  So I am quite sure we will have the kind of weather I like.

How many of you lament when cleaning the house and using your hands, that you don’t have more fingers to really help with the scrubbing?  How many of you wish while driving, that you had 6 or 8 fingers on each hand, in order to increase your dexterity?  And how many of you who play the piano, judge yourself, because you only have 5 fingers on each hand.  No.  We don’t judge or lament not having more fingers; we work with what we have.   As Tom Owen-Towle comments:  “If we could take life and look at everything that happens to us, and do one of two things.  Either take what has been given to us with gladness or reconcile ourselves to it with grace, then we would be more content, and happiness would be the by-product.”
 

To live a happy life, cultivate a spirit of generosity

The word Miser shares the same root with the word misery. Sometimes life can feel miserable, and when it does, all our energy is focused on our own egos.  To live as a miser is to live pinched, tight.  Misers are “caught in the grasp of miserableness.”

A miser is someone who holds tight to their money.  Who keeps it close to their being.  When we become miserly, stinginess seeps into our lives and become stingy.  We may hold back our feelings to a friend when they most need our love and support.  We may hold back our time, because we convince ourselves that we have absolutely none to spare for anyone other than ourselves.  We may hold back our money, convinced that no-one else deserves our hard earned cash.   And then we become stingy.  “The truth is, I think deep down, people are clamoring to be freed from the malaise of gorged egos.” -Towle   Released from their own tight hearts, hands and thoughts.

I read recently that one way to think about how generous we all are is to use a litmus test that examines the depth of our generosity. Are we a flint, a sponge or a honeycomb?   We might be a flint giver.  To get anything out of a flint you must hammer it.  And then you only get chips and sparks.  You might be a sponge- the more you use pressure, the more result you get.  Or you might be a honeycomb- that which just overflows with it’s own sweetness.  In the face of our unhappiness, it would do us a world of good I think to honestly access what kind of giver we are?  A flint, a sponge or a honeycomb.  Do we live with constriction or do our lives  overflow so with giving and breed happiness in others.  When we are generous- happiness is the by-product.

To live a happy life, make sure you laugh

It is told that before the arrival of missionaries to African, people were very good at expressing their enthusiasm for life.  Heart felt laughter was common place.  But when the missionaries came, they interpreted such expressions of laughter, as unreligious as “pagan.”  And after the Christian missionaries got their claws in the life of the African people, the people developed a muffled laugh, known to as the “Mission giggle.”  H.L. Menken defined Puritanism as “the lurking fear that somewhere someone may be having a good time.”

It can certainly be said, that throughout violent and arrogant times of human history: the holocaust, apartheid, witch-hunts, and heresy trials, laughter was the stranger.  As one writer wrote: “Too much religion throughout history has exhibited a high level of missionary and often military zeal but a low level of comic awareness.”

There is an Apache myth wherein the Creator grants human beings the ability to run, talk and to look.  But the Creator was not satisfied until earthlings were graced with the capacity to chuckle.  Only then did the Creator say, “Now, now you are fit to live.”

Laughter can seep into your life in so many ways.  Hang out with friends who tickle your funny bone, read the comics, rent comedies on your next trip to the video store, watch cartoons, listen to radio programs that highlight humor, watch the comedy channel or the state of the union address.  You have no excuse not to giggle, chuckle, guffaw your way through this life.  And when you do, happiness is the natural by-product.

It is said that some of the last words Jesus said to his disciples: was “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.”

To live a happy life, engage your life in that which breeds happiness.
Make goodness a priority
Forget trying to change others or your own inherent quirks
Find contentment in what you have
Be generous
Laugh
And happiness will surely be the by-product of your efforts.

It is told that when the Christian scriptures were being translated from English into the Inuit language, problems arose for the translators, for they discovered that there were a few words in English that didn’t correspond into Inuit.  For example, there is a passage in which the disciples are filled with joy upon meeting Jesus.  But in Inuit there is no word for Joy, so the translators had to find another way to express the passage.

Researchers found that perhaps the most joyful time of the day for the Inuit was when the dogs were fed in the evening.  When the dogs came barking and yelping, jumping up and down, and running around with exuberance.  The children would squeal with delight and neighbors would come out of their house to join in the revere as well.

So the translators used that experience of joy to help translate the meaning of the biblical text.  The passage which read, “The disciples were filled with joy over meeting Jesus.”   Was translated to read: “When the disciples saw Jesus, they waged their tails.”

Wag your tails my friends.   Wag your tails.
Blessed Be. Amen.