Seeking Happiness, Finding Meaning
Rev. Douglas Taylor
March 10, 2013
When I was 5 years old, my mom always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment. I told them they didn’t understand life. -John Lennon
John Lennon wrote that. I always thought I was so original when I would give that answer to the question over my younger years. As far back as I can remember, that has been my answer to the question of what I want to be when I grow up: happy. Oh, I learned to give a “correct” answer unfortunately, but I would still whisper the real answer to myself whenever someone asked. I want to be happy.
Over the years, through all the ups and downs of my life I have come now to a place in which I can with confidence say I am happy. And here is what I’ve figured out. I’ve figured out that my title, “Seeking Happiness, Finding Meaning,” is a little off. I think a better title would have been, “Seeking Meaning, Finding Happiness.” But the title as it is written certainly fits the world around us to say we are seeking happiness. Our American consumer culture, if you take that portion of it as representative of who we are, is entirely focused on pleasure-seeking and the acquisition of things. And we are told that this will lead to happiness.
In the world religions course we are doing, the section on Hinduism begins with the notion that all people go through stages in life in which they are seeking different things. The first stage is seeking pleasure. As I was reading it I thought, “Yeah that’s us. We Americans are pretty focused on that Pursuit of Happiness.” It is interesting because in Hinduism it is honored as an appropriate stage for some people. It is a starting point. Certainly for the young it is what they are after. But the book did not degrade the pursuit of pleasure as childish. It just named it as the first stage of what we human beings want in life.
The thing is: it is not satisfying. Sure, it is great to take all the pleasure you can find. But eventually the pleasure fades by repetition into commonplace and boring. It may take some of us a while to get there, but we all do eventually see that the pursuit of mere pleasure is not a fulfilling life. In the Hindu understanding, it may take a few lifetimes for a soul to catch on that the pursuit of pleasure is pedestrian and that there is much greater fruit to be had for those willing to try for it. And here it is important to say there is a difference between pleasure and happiness.
One way in which our American culture is very different from the Hindu culture of India is that here in America we have conflated the concepts of happiness and pleasure to the point they are synonymous. “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” enshrined in our Declaration of Independence has become a very individualistic and isolating goal. Many people are perfectly comfortable thinking about their own life, their own liberty, and their own happiness without being bothered by those ‘unalienable rights’ for the next person. And the ‘pursuit of happiness’ has become something selfish, a result the founding fathers surely did not intend.
Comedian Joan Rivers once quipped “People say that money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you have enough money, you can have a key made.” But time again, in the wisdom of poets and religious scripture we hear that more money does not equal more happiness. Despite what our consumer culture would have us believe, more stuff does not fulfill us. Christian Scripture (Timothy 6:10) says the “love of money is the root of all evil.” And John Lennon sings “I don’t care too much for money, ‘cause money can’t buy me love.” And yet, others have accurately said that money can be used to buy things that can make us happy, or can demonstrate our values or our love … and that can make us happy.
In terms of money and its relationship to happiness, the key seems to be the word ‘enough.’ Making enough money to meet basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing is the key. I’ve heard different dollar amounts from $40,000 to $75,000 a year. A study from a few decades back found that when you check in with major lottery winners a year later, they report being no more or less happy than they were before winning.
But there is something connected to money that does seem to be related to our happiness: not acquiring money, but giving it away. Countless examples show this. I read an article in the New York Times from a few months ago that talked about this. They offered the example of a person handing our envelopes to random people on the street. In the envelope people would find a $20 bill and a slip of paper. Half the slips invited people to splurge on themselves, to indulge in a little something, have fun. The other half of the slips encouraged people to spend the cash on someone else. The researchers then followed up with the people later. Which group reported being happier with the envelope of money and its simple instructions? The comparison isn’t even close. Hands down, people got an amazing amount of happiness out of spending a little surprise money on someone else as compared with the people who were invited to spend it on themselves. Giving gifts makes us happy.
Jerome Slote is our Worship Associate for today, and when he and I were talking about this service he brought in several possible readings from the work of Charles Eisenstein. He also lifted up Eisenstein’s idea that happiness comes from three sources. One source of happiness is Play. The reading talked about this aspect fairly well. The reading helped make a distinction between play as something other than pleasure or entertainment. Entertainment and pleasure can make us happy, but it is a passive and short-lived happiness. It happens to us. We call the experience happy, but that is too small for what I am talking about. Entertainment is too small for the fullness of life. Entertainment is passive; play is active.
The second source of happiness according to Eisenstein is gift giving. This, also, I have talked about a little bit at least in terms of how we use money. I remember an interesting conversation about gift exchange when I was at the congregation I served before coming here. I was in a circle of grandparents who were talking about the lost art of the Thank You Card. They were lamenting the way their children don’t insist that the grandkids write ‘thank you’ cards. They would just get the little ones on the phone to say thank you thinking that was enough. And for a little while the conversation drifted into the realm of generational differences and the changing norms of society. But then someone said something that refocused the conversation in an interesting way. She said “The purpose of gift-giving is to establish or maintain a relationship. The gift is about the relationship. The ‘thank you’ is an extension of that.” Thinking back to the notion that gift-giving is a source of happiness – a few of these grandparents were not feeling happy. I think the idea that the gift exchange serves as a tangible reflection of the relationship is a very poignant point.
The third source of happiness according to Eisenstein is shared work. Sharing together in a task turns the task into the backdrop against which we can be in relationship. My wife and I have discovered that neither of us particularly enjoys cooking. It’s not that either of us mind it or are bad at it. It’s just not something we enjoy. But we’ve discovered that if we are both in the room, sharing the prep work, it is more enjoyable. I see it happening in so many ways in my house, and around the congregation. Through the years I’ve overheard laughter from the church kitchen when folks from the Social Justice committee are preparing the salad for Sarah Jane Johnson community meal each month. There is a team of people who show up to fold the Beacon newsletter every other week. Or consider how one of the core components of Small Group Ministry is for each group, at least once a year, to do a service project together. In part it is for the group members to meet each other in a different setting, to enjoy each other. We all should serve needs greater than our own, but when we share that service with others, the work can bring us happiness.
Something to notice about Eisenstein’s three sources of happiness is that each is a shared activity; they are relational. Play, shared work, and gift giving, each of these three aspects of happiness is social in nature. And they are about creating and giving rather than receiving.
As I say that, I will admit, I am not sure that is the whole story. Let me shake this idea a little to see how it stands up to how I am living my life. I do find happiness outside of the social aspect as offered in Eisenstein’s framework. I can enjoy a good book, I take pleasure in that first sip of fresh coffee in the morning, I feel good when I go for a walk in the neighborhood or in the woods by myself. So I’m not sure I’m ready to redefine happiness only as those activities I do with other people.
My personal attitude has a lot to do with my sense of happiness. But this is a slippery path to describe because it is so subjective. Oh, self-help books and blogs abound with the advice that the key to happiness is to just be optimistic. “Don’t worry, be happy!” See the glass as half-full and you will be happier. Studies have been done about this, for example I found a report from the Mayo Clinic that said we can choose an optimistic outlook.
Other reports suggest that happiness is found in other attitude shifts such as: living in the moment, having satisfying work, staying close to family and friends, and taking care of your body. These are all suggestions for how to have more happiness in your life. But there is something missing.
It stands out most in the suggestion to “be more Scandinavian.” (http://www.wikihow.com/Be-Happy) Recent articles in Forbes Magazine and the Huffington Post report on the prosperity indices that measure happiness and how Scandinavian countries regularly hit the top ranking. Markers include “confidence in economic opportunity, faith in the government, and personal freedom.” Scandinavian countries also measure high on “feelings of connectedness inside a community” and “physical and mental well-being.” But really, the suggestion that happiness can be found in being more Scandinavian takes this hunt for happiness to an absurd end.
It is not that the ideas are bad or built on unsound data. It’s just that some of these suggestions are just correlations rather than real secrets to being happy. These endless suggestions to be optimistic and to exercise and be more Scandinavian are passed along as self-help advice that doesn’t really get us very far. Yes, my attitude is a significant part of the equation but if you really want to know what personal work is needed, take note because the best answer I have found is not simple.
In Viktor Frankl’s phenomenal book entitled Man’s Search of Meaning we read the thoughtful response to his experience in a Nazi concentration camp. He had established teen suicide-prevention centers in Vienna prior to being taken by the Nazis. His suicide prevention work continued in the camps. He said the people who survived the camps were those who had a reason to survive. Frankl saw that the difference came down to whether or not life still held a meaningful reason for a person. And further, meaningfulness is always about something greater than oneself.
Happiness, defined narrowly as a selfish pursuit of pleasure, has no place when set against what Viktor Frankl is talking about. But happiness – defined more deeply and relationally – is a natural outgrowth of a meaningful life. Frankl said happiness should not be pursued so much as ensued. He means happiness should follow. Seeking meaning, we will find happiness in the long run. But seeking happiness, we have no guarantee of ever finding meaning – and what a mistake that would be.
It seems to me if you want to talk about behaviors that will bring you happiness, look to the behaviors that are active rather than passive and behaviors that connect you socially to other through play, shared work, and gift-giving. If you want to talk about personal attitudes that will bring you happiness, look for meaning.
Everything else offered as advice on how to be happy may prove helpful for this person or that person, in this situation or that. So, sure – exercise, choose to be optimistic, move to Scandinavia. But really happiness is developed by connections and meaning.
As a boy and as a teenager I had a deep emptiness that I named a lack of happiness. As the years unfolded I came to see that emptiness instead as a disconnection on the verge of hopelessness. When I shifted to a longing for connection and meaning in my life, when I began to seek after meaning – then all manner of vitality and joy and love poured in eventually. I am now a happy person and have even learned how to spread that happiness around, creating more happiness and joy around me.
If you really want happiness, get involved in things. Reach out to other people. Play, don’t just watch, take part. Share the play, share the work. And give things away; send gifts out into the world. Buddha said the key to happiness is letting go. Make of your life a gift and offer it up.
I saw a quote; I have no idea who said it. “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” I like that. The point is not to pursue happiness; the point is to create it by pursuing meaning. At least that is what I have found through my explorations of meaning and connection and joy.
In a world without end,
May it be so.