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The Pursuit of Happiness

River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, February 6, 2000

Rev. Scott W. Alexander


I realized this week that (as a preacher) I've been on a bit of a tear of late tackling REALLY BIG SUBJECTS...a trend which I continue this morning. What, I ask you, could be a bigger topic than the one I've chosen for this morning - HAPPINESS? I mean we all want happiness, right? Heck, the framers of our national constitution thought happiness such a fundamental goal in human living that they wrote it right into the preamble: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." For more than 200 years Americans have passionately pursued happiness, why just last year a woman by the name of Pam Johnson of Texas (who signs off her e-mail's with the slogan "Keep Smiling!") formed the Society of Happy People, and launched a national campaign to get all 50 states' governors to declare August 8th "National Admit You're Happy Day," mercifully, most U.S. governors grumpily ignored her unerringly cheerful call!...but Americans are big on happiness. And this obsession is not just a phenomenon and focus of Western culture. Happiness (for the individual and all of humanity) is also the primary goal of Buddhism. Listen to the way his holiness the Dalai Lama puts it in his new book "Ethics for the New Millennium" (which I will explore in much greater depths next Sunday).
"The more I see of the world, the clearer it becomes that no matter what our situation, whither we are rich or poor, educated or not, of one race, gender, religion or another, we all desire to be happy and to avoid suffering...The desire or inclination to be happy and avoid suffering knows no boundaries. It is in our nature... Our every intended action, in a sense our whole life - how we choose to live it within the context of the limitations imposed by our circumstances -- can be seen as our answer to the great question which confronts us all: 'How am I to be happy?'"
How, indeed are we to be happy? What is happiness? Is it something we can engineer or facilitate in our lives...and if so, how do we get there? These are questions most of us implicitly ask ourselves almost every day. We want to be happy (or at least achieve the more subdued state of contentment), but happiness (and this is the first thing I would like to suggest about it this morning) is a terribly elusive and subjective thing. My Webster's dictionary took a stab at defining happiness this way: "A state of well-being, characterized by relative permanence, by dominating agreeable emotion ranging in value from mere contentment to deep and intense joy in being." O.K....that's clear enough I suppose, but that definition seems like a vague and glittering generality that will be of little usefulness as I strive toward finding happiness in my own life. Happiness, it seems to me, is first and foremost an utterly subjective, internal, personal experience. There is no way to have generic or formulaic happiness, one discovers that one is happy only in the immediate, idiosyncratic fabric of one's own life. It seems to me the only accurate definition of happiness is when a particular human individual can honestly report (both to self and others) "Hey, I'm happy...I'm contented with my life and feel pretty good about things!" It really probably is that simple, happiness is when we report we're feeling happy.

But it's still a pretty elusive and tricky reality in our living, isn't it? The Declaration of Independence of the United States gives us the right to pursue happiness, but no where does it promise us we'll actually find, know or achieve it! One famous psychologist wrote, "If you work for happiness, it will surely elude you." And my colleague Roy Phillips writes (wisely I think), "Happiness is a by-product. It does us no good to aim toward it directly. Happiness is a 'cat-like' emotion wrote [poet] Robertson Davies, 'if you try to coax it, happiness will avoid you. But if you pay no attention to it, it will rub against your legs, and spring unbidden into your lap.'" I am attracted to the laid-back spiritual notion (and I think somewhat Buddhist) that it does no good for us as individuals to be constantly striving and desperately working to achieve this elusive/subjective thing called happiness (that might be rightly seen as a form of self-absorbed narcissism), and that perhaps much of the true happiness that can be ours will only come to us when we relax, hold life with a certain casual trust, stop thinking so obsessively about ourselves and simply allow happiness and contentment to quietly reveal itself to us at its own pace, in its own ordinary times, common ways and simple places.

That having been said, I must quickly add that I believe some of us are simply more predisposed to happiness than others. This is confirmed by Dr. David Meyers, author of The Pursuit of Happiness: Who is Happy and Why? whose extensive study of human happiness indicates, and now I quote, "There are genetic pre-dispositions to happiness...I liken happiness to cholesterol levels: both are genetically influenced and yet both are, to some extent under our control." It is without any self-congratulation or pride that I realize I was personally given some PRETTY HAPPY GENES at birth. I tend (most of the time) to naturally be pretty cheerful, satisfied and content. One of my favorite throw-away lines (when asked how I am doing) is that I say, "Hey, I'm too stupid to be unhappy." Just like my parents and three brothers, I tend to be pretty satisfied and happy most of the time, it just comes naturally to me, through no effort or moral superiority on my part I am sure. And I observe (again, without any judgement and certainly no satisfaction) that this is not so for many people. I take no joy in acknowledging that some of you find personal happiness a terribly elusive thing, and are repeatedly frustrated in your lives in achieving this basic feeling of well-being and joy. I have a close friend here in Maryland who has been so dissatisfied and discouraged with his life of late that he's convinced himself happiness is not a proper human goal..."To ask for happiness is to ask for too much...it's enough," he says, "just to keep misery at bay." Years ago when I served a church in New Jersey, there was a very grumpy/negative parishioner who came through the reception line after I preached a sermon on this subject -- suggesting (as I will this morning) that it is possible for us to do something about our level of personal happiness - when her turn came she said to me through a scowl, "That's easy for you to say!" Knowing her negative spiritual bent as I did, I was unable to contain my laughter, and soon (mercifully) a winning smirk of self-recognition came over her face, and she began also to chuckle about her own willful (and totally unnecessary and unproductive) resistance to happiness and light-heartedness. Her attitude (which was "penetrable," thank God) reminded me of the wag who said, "Why should I be happy when there are so many beautiful things to be miserable about!" Happiness genes are not equally distributed amongst us, but remember please what Dr. Meyer also affirms, like a cholesterol level, our happiness level is "to some extent under our control." While I would never go as far as Abraham Lincoln, who was reported to have blithely said, "Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be," I do believe each of us has a great deal to say (by the life decisions and spiritual choices we make) about how much happiness we will be able to discover in our lives. While I categorically reject the flippant assertion of those slick, self-help gurus who say that everyone somehow "chooses" everything that happens to them (including the misery and happiness we experience) I nonetheless passionately believe that no matter what our psychological, physical or spiritual pre-dispositions, that we can MAKE EVERYDAY CHOICES in the way we relate to life that will SUBSTANTIVELY DETERMINE how much happiness we will be able to discover, create and be blessed by in our living.

But before I discuss those concrete choices I believe we all have within our power to move ourselves toward more happiness, I must say something (obvious I think) about where happiness does not necessarily reside. It is clear to me that human happiness is usually not correlated with the abundance, ease, or outward comfort level of your existence. You may be surprised to hear that recent surveys of Americans reveal that most of us report themselves as reasonably happy. Three in ten Americans describe themselves as "very happy," six in ten say they are "pretty happy," and only one in ten reports being "not too happy." It may further surprise you to know that these "Happiness surveys" also reveal that the levels of one's income, social status, education, (even the all-important status of one's health) HAVE ALMOST NOTHING TO DO with how happy people report themselves to be. This makes more than a little sense to me. I had an uncle - long dead now, rest his soul -- who was a millionaire many times over - he had every material thing, freedom of choice, and status in his community a human being could wish for - yet he was (pardon the pun) a MISERABLE human being (in every sense of the word!). Surely you all know people in your own lives who (if one were to rationally catalogue their cushy and comfortable outward circumstances) SHOULD be wildly happy (but are not)...and the opposite is also true. I have a friend who recently returned from an extended trip to India, where she was amazed (stunned might be a better word) to find the poor village children (living as they do in hovels of absolute squalor, living lives of terrible physical deprivation) to be quite cheerful and apparently happy! This striking dissonance between: 1) the outward poverty of these children, and 2) their natural, spontaneous, irrepressible joyfulness) got my friend thinking about her own life saturated as it is in comfortable American abundance...and she has begun to wonder if, in fact, she has her spiritual priorities and life focus in the right places. "Why with so much obvious ease and blessing in my life do I so frequently perceive myself as unhappy," she wonders? Similarly, I have known people living with serious illness, chronic pain, economic hardship, even imminent death -- who have (against all expected logic) been able to remain basically happy and content.

The human spirit is so remarkable that it often achieves something resembling happiness even under the most horrible of circumstances. In his superb testament to human courage and resilience, Man's Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl describes the intense moments of happiness and contentment he found amidst the horrors of Auschwitz...watching a beautiful winter sunset in the death camp yard with a friend...sharing a crust of bread with a fellow prisoner...being filled with joy as he remembered (as he did his slave labor) of the love he and his wife had for each other. Likewise, a survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald wrote this years later,

"There are always compensations. The only real prison any [one] knows is him [or her] self. The Gestapo tried to make life [extra] hard to bear for those more intelligent by having them collect the garbage and empty slop jars. All the professors were assigned to this job, and I was made to join them because I had a PhD. Actually, it became the one happy experience of my imprisonment, because of the conversations we had about history, philosophy, politics, and our observations of how the place was affecting the guards, ourselves, and our fellow prisoners. You make your own happiness " [this survivor of the death camps concluded] "you make your own happiness."
I am persuaded that happiness is an interior reality of the heart that can be irrational in that it can (in the right people) be oblivious to outward circumstance. Happiness is a psychological or spiritual state that can be quite independent of the external trappings of comfort, wealth, good luck, or even good health that might (or might not) come our way. One of the deepest, most persistent (and I would add spiritually distracting and destructive) illusions of American life is the false correlation (that exists in many people's minds, certainly Madison Avenue which tries to sell us more and more opulent stuff) the false correlation between: 1) the unbridled pursuit and possession of material possessions and wealth, and 2) Their ability to discover and create true, everyday happiness in their living. I like the rather pointed way William Lyon Phelps debunks this foolish correlation, "If happiness truly consisted in physical ease and freedom from care, then the happiest individual would not be either a man or a woman. It would be, I think, an American cow."

Look, I'm not going to pretend that material possessions and comfort are meaningless. I'd be liar if I didn't admit that I personally desire (and pretty actively want and work for) a certain, basic level of material comfort and ease to help facilitate (or at least make possible) my basic contentment and happiness in life. While the poor village children of India may be able to find simple hearted happiness amidst severe physical deprivation, I'd just as soon leave that noble discovery to them, thank you, as I seek my life happiness in basic American material comfort. But (our American ease and opportunity aside) this compelling, insistent truth that happiness is (in the end) spiritually and emotionally disconnected from wealth remains to powerfully instruct us, doesn't it? Happiness is not essentially linked to material wealth. Happiness is far simpler and more broadly available than that...it is (if you will) an equal opportunity emotion or state of being. So if you want true happiness, you will not necessarily need a big house, with unending piles of food on the dinner table, with three BMW's in the driveway to whisk you away to your big and important job. In fact it may even be easier to find true happiness if you are unburdened by all that attention-demanding, spirit-distracting clutter. True, enduring, universal human happiness (the kind with the holy power to truly bless us in our living) always in the end lies elsewhere.

And where is that, you might well ask...where is that? Well, my answer is so simple that at first you might distrust it...but I urge you not to...for I think this is one of the greatest (and most truly comforting and wise) spiritual truths of our living, one that (it turns out) is backed up by recent social science research. I return to the groundbreaking work of Dr. David Meyer. After decrying the narcissism, materialism and excessive greed which he believes defined the 1980's in America, Dr. Meyer writes in his study of happiness,

"We're becoming aware that wealth and well-being are two different things. I'm reaffirming an older wisdom about the importance of active spirituality and human relationships. [In the 1990's]" Meyer wrote, "Americans need to rethink their quest for happiness...People recovering [from the privatistic pursuit of wealth in the 80's may be surprised to find that true happiness usually comes from simple, inexpensive pleasures close to home. Getting a good night's sleep. Visiting friends. Reading a good book. Going to church."

What did he say...GOING TO CHURCH?...going to church is correlated with happiness? Now we're talking! Happiness can be found at church...that conclusion makes this minister's day! But it's true! Research shows that going to church regularly REALLY IS directly, positively correlated with happiness! Survey after survey reveals that people who are active participants in religious congregations not only LIVE LONGER, they also report themselves SIGNIFICANTLY HAPPIER than people who don't have a church, mosque, or synagogue in their lives. So if you want to be truly happy in your life, STICK AROUND THIS JOINT DEAR FRIENDS, for this church will help you to discover pathways to greater happiness!

Actually, I'm not joking or being flippant here (fun as it is for me as a minister to have the statistical ammunition to prove that church-going is a good and beneficial thing!). I genuinely (and seriously) believe this Unitarian Universalist church is (at its essence) PRECISELY ALL ABOUT what Dr. Meyers research is affirming as the true pathway to happiness. What Dr. Meyers is saying (when all is said and done) is that HAPPINESS IS RELATIONAL. His research concludes that there is a direct and significant correlation between: 1) the happiness individuals report, and 2) the quality, depth and intensity of the everyday RELATIONSHIPS they establish in their lives (including those they find at church and other institutions of human connection and caring!)...happiness results from our REACHING OUT and CONNECTING UP with the life that surges within and around us (including loving relationships with those closest to us).

And what - I ask you - other than that is this church all about? What is the mission of this Congregation if it is not fostering caring connection? What are we trying to do here at this religious community other than facilitate healthy, life-giving relationships? You've heard me say it a hundred times...River Road Unitarian Church is all about creating the conditions to help us each find RIGHT RELATION, DEPTH RELATION, CARING RELATION with the life that is at hand for each of us. The word "religion" (it may intrigue you to know) comes from the Latin root religare...which literally means "to tie" or "bind up"...to bring together. Religion, then, is about helping to bring things together...to help people to discover close, caring, and continuing relationships in their living. "Religion," Dr. Meyer notes, "helps give an ultimate purpose to life and asks people to care about one another. The tradition of reserving a Sabbath day each week for relaxation and family activities is a way to restore good spirits." Similarly, this Unitarian Universalist religious community is here (all our worship, programming, religious education classes and fellowship opportunities are created) to encourage, empower and enable you to deepen, expand, reflect upon and improve your relationships. This church is here to help you better bind yourself up with this miraculous world we have been given) at all levels of your existence. Pioneering religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs put it this way, "The religious way is the way that touches universal relationships, that goes high, wide and deep, that expands the feelings of kinship." Happiness arises from our active kinship and connection with the world, it really is that simple.

Let me come at this from a slightly different angle. Most of you know that my most recent book is on Everyday Spiritual Practice. What I said in that book (and have repeatedly affirmed from this pulpit as what I believe to be the central purpose of our liberal religion) is that everyday spiritual practice (which is what we come to church to learn and do) is any activity or attitude (which we intentionally and regularly engage in) which helps us to establish deeper, more caring, nurturing, and reciprocal relationships - vibrant, caring relationships -- with the self...with others...with the communities in which we find ourselves...and with the whole of creation itself. Coming to church to work on your spiritual life (whether it is simply to attend Sunday services where - with others -- you reflect regularly on the meaning and purpose of your life...or work with a social justice task-force on changing public policy toward the poor...or gather food for the Shepherd's Table which feeds Montgomery County's hungry ...or attend a meditation class to reduce your stress and heighten your mindfulness) -- coming to church is all about deepening and improving your relationship with the rich life that surges within and around you. And I believe Dr. Meyer is precisely right in his happiness surveys - it is RIGHT HERE, in the quiet, satisfying context of healthy, deep everyday relationships...in making good and healing connections in your living - that happiness "springs" [as the poet writes, like an elusive cat] "unbidden into your lap." If there is something called heaven -- if there is a place of ultimate, sustained satisfaction and purpose -- surely it is found in the stuff of the everyday caring connections we make in life. And if there is something called hell - if there is a place of eternal dissatisfaction, despair and emptiness -- surely it is found in the isolations, alienations and estrangements we allow to drive us into aloneness and despair.

If we choose to spend most of our time, attention and energy privately pursuing our own happiness where it usually cannot be found (by selfishly gathering more and more material wealth, possessions and privilege around us...isolating ourselves amidst our own covetousness and clutter) then we shall grow progressively unhappy and unsatisfied (even though our outward circumstances might make us look rich and lucky). I believe the person with the greatest likelihood of finding genuine happiness is spiritually and relationally open, engaged and expansive...and (as a habit of the heart) readily reaches out to life around him or her, and lives NOT BY AN ETHIC OF SELF-ABSORPTION...by what the great 20th Century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead calls THE LAW OF EXPENDITURE. I quote him:

"The secret to happiness lies in knowing this: that we live by the law of expenditure. We find the greatest joy not in getting, but in expressing what we are. There are tides in the ocean of life, and what comes in depends on what goes out. The currents flow inward only where there is an outlet. Nature does not give to those who will not spend; her gifts are merely loaned to those who will not use them. Empty your lungs and breathe. Run, climb, work and laugh; the more you give out, the more you shall receive. Be exhausted, and you shall be fed. [Our] gladness is not in taking or holding, but in doing, striving, building, living. It is a higher joy to teach than be taught. It is good to get justice, but better to do it; fun to have things, but more fun to make them. The happy person" [Whitehead concludes] "is the one who lives by the life of love..."
Several years ago, a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship - the global UU church without walls which I then served as minister - wrote me about how he discovered happiness by his own "law of expenditure." Listen to a part of his letter:
"Real happiness, real satisfaction, comes from doing something for other people. [My wife and I] practically adopted an 83 year old blind lady living with arthritis, diabetes, and cancer, and looked after her the best we could without actually moving in. She had no family, so we took over, [helping her to get into a decent life-care situation]. She was no relative...we met her by accident...We had no reason to take on this [difficult] job. But we did, and we recognize now how important it was. Not to her, though she was in trouble, but to us! We had to. And in that hard, often discouraging struggle to straighten out her life and get her the help and security she needed - in that grubby, dirty house and that smelly, sometimes grueling household routine [of caring for her] - I guess, as we look back, I guess we found what might be called happiness."
The words of George Bernard Shaw come to mind:
"This is the true joy in life: being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my whole life belongs to the whole community, and that as long as I live it is my privilege to for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no "brief candle" to me. It is a sort of "splendid torch" which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."
So, when all is said and done, how do we best achieve happiness? I think the answer is deceptively (but blessedly) simple...IN RELATIONSHIP. HAPPINESS IS NOT ABOUT YOU, ITS ABOUT YOU IN RELATIONSHIP WITH THE WORLD. The way to greater, more sustainable personal happiness lies in the disciplined cultivation of relationships - on all levels of our everyday existence. We have the greatest potential to make ourselves happy not by hoarding money, McMansions, Maseratis or the right Merlot even...we make ourselves happy by actively engaging other life and then generously giving ourselves away...in right relation, depth relation, caring relation with all the life that intricately dances within and around us. It is by giving and engaging (not by focussing on ourselves) that we (slowly, miraculously) begin to draw near the elusive, mystery of happiness we so seek. Maybe this is what the author of the Book of Luke meant more than 2,000 years ago when he wrote (and this is my last word to you today):
Give, and there will be gifts for you, a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the measure you measure out is the amount you will be given back.




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