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Sermons: “But Are You Happy?

Happiness is a deep, persistent and universal obsession for humanity. As one of my correspondents asked, "Why isn’t happiness the only thing that matters?" From the very beginning Americans (in particular) have made happiness a central piece of their national quest. When the Founders of the nation gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776 to draft the official statement of principles upon which the new Republic was to be built, they decided that happiness was SO FUNDAMENTAL A GOAL AND GOOD that they wrote it right into the preamble! "We hold these truths to be self-evident (they wrote) that all men [sic] 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."

From the very beginning, then, as a people we have been passionately devoted to pursuing our individual happiness. The American Dream holds that each one of us (no matter how limited we are by birth, background or nature) can achieve for him- or herself whatever measure of fulfillment of life we desire. And we have consistently labored to structure our economic, social, political, and familial lives in ways which we believe will maximize happiness for the greatest possible number of individuals. While many cultures exalt the well-being of the TOTAL COMMUNITY as the highest societal good, we Americans have consistently regarded the happiness and freedom of INDIVIDUALS as the primary goal of our society. From childhood we have all been taught to believe in the possibility and preciousness of personal happiness; it would be downright un-American not to do so. Who amongst us does not devote a great deal of spiritual and emotional energy seeking happiness? I do, don’t you?

But what in God’s name is happiness, anyway? My Webster’s 3rd International Dictionary defines happiness as, "A state of well­being, 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 I find any such "GLITTERING GENERALITY" (which is the trap many definitions of happiness fall into) to be of little help in pondering happiness on a personal level.

Happiness, it seems to me and several who have written me, is first and foremost an UTTERLY SUBJECTIVE, INTERNAL, PERSONAL EXPERIENCE. There is no objective or scientific way to determine if you are happy—it has no quantifiable characteristics or set of succinct symptoms. You can’t merely study someone’s brain wave patterns, internal chemistry, facial expressions, even outward behavior to determine if they are happy. Perhaps then when we define what happiness means to us we must fall back upon the RADICAL SUBJECTIVITY of Humpty Dumpty when he said to Alice in Wonderland, "When I use a word, it means just what I chose it to mean—neither more or less." It seems to me that the only accurate definition of happiness is that state of human being and feeling which exists when an individual can honestly say to him- or herself or others, "Hey, I’m happy!" Happiness is when we feel we’re happy, period.

Of another thing I am sure, along with several CLFers who have written me, personal happiness often has little to do with outward life circumstance or one’s luck in one s family, career, or health. Recent surveys reveal that the levels of one’s income, status and education (even the all-important status of one’s health) have almost NOTHING to do with how happy people report themselves to be. I had an uncle who was a millionaire many times over...he had every material thing, luxury and status most Americans imagine would make them happy—a 2,000 acre estate on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, servants, a yacht and international recognition as one of America’s finest Yachtsmen, 2 Mercedes in the driveway, trips around the world, and filet mignon whenever he wanted it. Yet he was a "MISERABLE" human being (in both ways we mean that, unfortunately). Surely you yourselves have witnessed similar tragedies of unhappy wealth.

I had a friend recently return from an extended trip to India where she was amazed to find the poor village children (living as they do in hovels of absolute squalor, and lives of terrible physical deprivation) to be, on the whole, cheerful and happy. She was stunned by their laughter and eagerness as they frolicked, and she will never take her own copious blessings as an American quite so for granted again. The human spirit is so remarkable that it often achieves happiness even under the most horrible of life conditions. In his superb book Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl describes the profound moments of happiness he found amidst the horrors of Auschwitz: watching beautiful hot-red winter sunsets etched against the trees, sharing a crust of bread with a fellow prisoner, being filled with joy as he remembered the love he and his wife had for each other. Frankl was able to find joy in life, even in the death camp! Likewise, a survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald wrote, years later, 

"There are always compensations. The only real prison any(one) knows is himself. The Gestapo tried to make life additionally hard to bear for the more intelligent by having them collect the garbage and empty the 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, systems of politics and our observations of how the place was affecting the guards, ourselves, and our fellow prisoners. You make your own happiness (this survivor concludes); you make your own happiness."

So it appears that whether or not one is successful in achieving the mysterious and often elusive state of human contentment called happiness is seldom dependent upon the pleasantness of the outward circumstances life presents. Happiness is an INTERIOR reality of the heart, a psychological or spiritual state that can be quite independent of the external trappings of comfort, luxury or good health which might (or might not) come our way.

But none of this tells us how we ourselves might come by personal happiness. Is it something we can chase, enhance or discover? It is something we can (as the framers of our constitution suggest) PURSUE? Many CLFers I have heard from over the years are convinced that human happiness CANNOT be achieved by conscious effort or intentionality. One famous psychoanalyst wrote, "If you work for happiness, it will surely elude you." And my colleague Roy Phillips asserts, "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 this notion that we are often wise to take a laid-back, almost "Zen" approach to happiness. Perhaps it is true that if one is constantly and desperately striving and working and driving to find happiness, it will elude that individual all the more. Perhaps much of the happiness that can be ours will come to us only when we relax, only if we hold life with a certain looseness of grip, allowing happiness to reveal itself to us at its own pace, in its own times and places.

Speaking personally for a moment, I know that most often when I suddenly realize that I am happy, it is in some effortless/everyday moment when I have stopped striving for all my imagined perfection. I am happiest when I stop laboring at being PERFECTLY HAPPY and FULFILLED and WONDERFUL and just get about the life that has so mysteriously been given me. Often in life I discover that, indeed, happiness is often a "cat-like" emotion, it springs into my lap unbidden (almost off-hand, careless-like—a startling, unexpected gift), when I stop trying to coax or create it.

A lot of the people have affirmed the same experience.. .Happiness -they said—is not something we engineer.. .it finds us in SIMPLE moments of everyday existence. One CLF member once wrote, "[Happiness] floods in at the most unexpected times—small moments of connection with those I love, connection with the earth, the awe of observing a sunrise, a scene of joyous welcome at the airport, the primroses on my kitchen table."

Yes, of course, it happens to us when we are wise enough to pause for a moment and drink in the hushed beauty of our world...or turn off that infernal television, get out a good book and go to new, rich, quiet, worlds in the mind...or when we suddenly realize (snuggling with our partner or lover beneath the comforter of our togetherness, or huddling with a good friend over a hot cup of morning coffee) that we are not alone, that life (BY GOD) is pretty damned fine to us, AND THAT WE ARE HAPPY! So surely much of what makes us happy in life comes to us casually, serendipidously, and when we relax a bit, and let life’s mundane flow simply bless us with its startling gifts.

I am further convinced (and this may shock the dogmatic free­willers amongst us) that some of us are simply predisposed to find more happiness in life than others. It is with no sense of self-aggrandizement that I tell you I believe I was personally given HAPPY GENES at birth. I tend to be insufferably cheerful, and do not understand this organically cheerful bent of mine, but somehow (just like both my parents and most of my brothers) I tend naturally to be satisfied and happy most of the time! Sometimes I think that I’m simply too stupid to know when I should be miserable, and I know how irritating my unquenchable cheerfulness can be for more lugubrious souls around me, but I can’t help it. Even rather unpleasant outward circumstances do not usually succeed in crushing my basic contentment with life.

This is not to say, of course, that I do not suffer unhappy times. As lucky and privileged as I have been in my first 42 years, I have not escaped life’s inevitable pain and difficulty...Dear God, how life can hurt. The flow of human life is such that none of us (no matter how buoyant or sunny our personalities) can escape periodic unhappiness. Only raving psychotics (or terminally deluded consumerist yuppies who believe they are entitled to a life of perpetual "highs") report themselves happy all the time. But I am deeply grateful that I am (through no choosing or merit of my own) one of those sometimes-irritating people who just naturally comes into life tending toward happiness. I simply can’t help myself.

And it is without flippancy or judgment that I also realize that for some of you the EXACT OPPOSITE is true. I take no joy in acknowledging that many of you find personal happiness a terribly elusive thing, and are repeatedly frustrated in your lives in achieving this feeling of basic, sustained satisfaction. My dear friend Gene Pickett whom I succeeded here at CLF enjoyed describing himself as a person with WINTERY SPIRITUALITY, needed around the office to OFFSET and AMELIORATE my unending SUMMERY PERSONALITY! It’s a good thing that some of us are clearly born and raised to be less happy-go-lucky than others, MORE DOUR AND SUSPICIOUS OF LIFE, AND GENERALLY LESS INCLINED TO CHEERFULNESS. That is merely a difference in organic perspective to which no legitimate moral significance can or should be attached.

Yet in the same breath, I must also point out that some people I know seem tragically hell-bent on doing everything they can to systematically arrange their own unhappiness. Who was the wag who said, "Why should I be happy when there are so many beautiful things to be miserable about"? I know a few people who almost seem to be happiest when they are miserable. They derive a perverse kind of spiritual energy and contentment from being unhappy (and letting everyone around them know all the details of their discontentment!). These folks are SPIRITUALLY SUSPICIOUS when things begin going right in their lives, and seem only comfortable when they have misery to talk about. Several years ago when I preached a sermon on happiness affirming that there is an element of choice in all this, one of my more negative and wintery parishioners rushed up to me in the reception line with a pursed, sour expression on her face, and whined, "That’s easy for you to say!" Do you know any people like this?

Perhaps you yourself, from time to time, catch yourself arranging your own unhappiness. God knows life gives us ample excuses to feel sorry for ourselves.

Without being too judgmental about it, I think it important to remind ourselves that happiness is (to a substantial degree) A MATTER OF CHOICE. This has been a point made repeatedly by CLFers. Yet sensitive to how very different our spiritual and emotional dispositions are, I would NOT go as far as Abe Lincoln who blithely asserted, "Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.".. .nor (I think) will I be recommending the new self-help book HAPPINESS IS A CHOICE which from its reviews seems to foolishly suggest (as a lot of "new age" stuff does these days) that if we just have the right attitudes and apply the right spiritual or psychological techniques we can have TOTAL control over the way we feel about ourselves and what happens to us in life. I believe such sweeping assertions trivialize the deep pain which some of us (often through no fault of our own) encounter more frequently than others (someone who is unhappy because of ill-health, for example). Unlike the New Age optimists who believe individuals can be in COMPLETE CONTROL, I do not believe that any of us totally determines the mix of happiness and misery we will experience in life. Accidents of birth, personality, neurology, life circumstance and luck (just plain luck!) powerfully shape how we feel about our lives. Any suggestion that people who EVER find themselves in an "unhappy place" are "CHOOSING" is (how can I delicately put this) just so much self-help crap...insensitive to the complexities of human life and personality.

But before this assertion is even cool on my lips, I must immediately and passionately go on to affirm that as a Unitarian Universalist I also believe that each of us nonetheless has a great deal to say about how much happiness we shall have in life. Clearly there are certain attitudes (stances) of the heart and actions of human being which we are free to choose (and nurture), attitudes that can contribute greatly to one’s own measure of happiness. I take it on faith that none of us is fated to a life of interior misery and despair. Happiness is something we can pursue, something we can work at discovering more of, something we can help to bring to fuller flowering in our lives. I refuse to believe that any of us is powerless to make our lives happier and more joyful, regardless of circumstance, personality, or upbringing.

But how? How do we go about ensuring a greater measure of personal happiness for ourselves? What kind of decisions can we make to bring more of it to flower in our lives, how can we successfully "pursue" a more joyous and contented life? Well let me begin by saying how I am sure we will NOT find happiness (because when looking for something it is often as important to know WHERE NOT TO LOOK as it is to know precisely where the sought-after commodity is found).

We will NOT find it pursuing it the way many Americans today seem to think it is pursued. One of the deepest and ugliest tragedies of American thought is the persistent spiritual confusion which is made between the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of consumptive wealth. Everyone knows ours is a fiercely materialistic, consumption-oriented culture which has always encouraged individuals to believe that money (and the physical pleasures and prerogatives it buys) is a sure and steady road to happiness. It is no mistake that when most Americans fantasize about what would make them happier than they already are, their first thoughts tend to be about increased income, bigger homes and cars, and a higher standard of living. The phenomenal success of state lotteries is in large part due (I think) to this systematic American confusion of wealth for happiness...a confusion, I might add, with often tragic consequences. Every now and again you see a story in the newspaper about somebody who won MILLIONS in the lottery, but ends up depressed, even suicidal when happiness and fulfillment continue to elude them. As with my "miserably rich" uncle, clearly, wealth does not guarantee happiness.

Now please don’t get me wrong here... I do not want to be too quick to dismiss the potential for contentment which comes with a certain level of creature comfort and material wealth. While money "isn’t everything" it sure helps, and I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t acknowledge that I’d probably be very unhappy about living with much less than I’m blessed with now. But nonetheless, many who have written me about the happiness they know affirmed that (chances are) one can never achieve a deep and enduring sense of personal happiness by merely chasing after bucks and BMWs. In Philip Slater’s classic critique of post World War II American culture, he suggests that the privatistic pursuit of personal wealth is (when it is unmasked for what it truly does to the individual’s spirit) little more than "THE PURSUIT OF LONELINESS." And Christopher Lasch (in his wonderful book entitled The Culture of Narcissism) makes the same point that our American obsession with pursuing more and more material things crushes us humanly beneath the weight of its own emptiness. "The culture of competitive individualism (Lasch writes) which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of ALL AGAINST ALL, (has brought) the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of narcissistic preoccupation with the self."

It is with no sense of pride that I point out that this undeniable American shift toward greed and self-absorbed isolation at this time is most clearly symbolized by MY generation. They call us "Yuppies" and suggest that (more often than not) we baby-boomers who grew up in the comfortable 50s and 60s have become the penultimate privatists, the quintessential consumers, sophisticatedly selfish, who passionately pursue little more than our own materialistic advancement...with nary a thought to the desperate needs of the wider human community. While "yuppie bashing" is a bit overdone, sadly there ARE many in America today whose selfish/materialistic behavior indicates that they honestly believe they can be whole and happy persons by singularly pursuing their own personal advancement and enrichment. And politicians everywhere are increasingly giving lip service to this cruel and tragic illusion, "It’s OK, Americans who have "made it"...don’t have to pay taxes for the poor, "READ MY LIPS," YOU DON’T HAVE TO CARE FOR the hungry, the homeless, the uneducated, the sick, the elderly, the historically oppressed... READ MY LIPS, We’re giving enough, our standard of living has stalled, so lets gut welfare, ignore universal health care, preserve our personal assets...too bad about our neighbors who are failing."

But this American inclination to believe that happiness can be found in personal isolation and covetousness must be unmasked as the dangerous bankruptcy it is. For surely we all can see (as did have several CLFers written to me) that when we blindly pursue our own wealth and possessions (under the misguided illusion that these things will in-and-of-themselves make us happy) all we really succeed in doing is ISOLATING ourselves away from the blessing of life and other persons around. If our eyes are continually set upon ourselves and our own creaturely comforts... if we singularly devote our energies to having, taking, possessing and consuming... then we inevitably fall OUT OF RELATIONSHIP with all the wondrous life forms around us, and cast ourselves into a LONELY SPIRITUAL HELL OF PURPOSELESS POSSESSIVENESS.

And thus we finally arrive at the very core of what I want to say to you about happiness this morning. After reading and pondering the thoughts of UUs from all around the globe, I am convinced (more, in fact that I could ever tell you) that all authentic and enduring happiness is (at its core) RELATIONAL. The truly happy person is the one who has reached out to life around him or her (natural world, local community, worthy institutions, lover or life partner, children and family, friends, living things wherever they are found), to establish SIGNIFICANT RELATIONSHIPS of caring RECIPROCITY. It is CONTACT WITH and CARING FOR living things beyond your own little skin which has the real power to make us whole and bring us happiness. It is SERVICE not selfishness...COMMUNION not consumption not getting which make available to us most of what is truly rewarding in life. Jesus of Nazareth seems to have understood this paradox of true richness when he said "Many who are FIRST will be LAST, and the LAST, FIRST." It is our ENGAGEMENT in the context of RECIPROCAL RELATIONSHIPS which in the end make us truly rich, and bring us life’s most sustaining joy. If you are merely a selfish consumer (thus a person devoted only to taking whatever you can from life—be it love, money, power, whatever) then you shall never be genuinely .happy, not even if you appear (like the Donald Trumps of this world) to "have it all."

A CLF member from Washington D.C. shared this personal story with me. 

"Real happiness, real satisfaction, comes from doing something for other people. [My wife and I] practically adopted an 83 year old blind lady 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 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—I guess, as we look back, I guess we found what might be called happiness." 

Happiness, then, curiously often comes to us out of service and giving.

The great 20th Century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead seems to have understood this perfectly when he wrote, 

"the secret of 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 and holding, but in doing, the striving, the building, the living. It is a higher joy to teach than to 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 the life of love..."

Yes, of course. It’s so obvious, yet at times so hard to see. The happy person is the one who lives the life of love...who relates to other life in caring ways, who offers the self and gives all he or she has freely to others, who lives by the law of HOLY HUMAN EXPENDITURE, and knows that the best way to get is to first give. It’s so obvious it’s almost embarrassing to say it.

Recent surveys on what makes Americans happy reveals that of all the factors one might have suspected we would name as leading to personal contentment (job satisfaction, career success, social status, income and lifestyle levels, even health) it is the RELATIONAL ONES which are the best predictors of happiness. LOVE is the single most important contributor to happy lives. People report that it’s the caring relationships we nurture with our families and friends which bring us the most joy. It is only when we SHARE WHAT WE HAVE WITH OTHERS that we ourselves know our profound beauty and worth, and therefore find true joy in living.

I know that this is true in my own life. While I enjoy the material possessions, professional prestige and physical comforts which are mine...it is ever and always my loving reciprocal relationships with other human beings which bring me the most lasting and life­saving personal contentment. It’s a confounding paradox, isn’t it...you must give to get, expend to have, share to possess. Happiness (which some are sure comes from hoarding and holding) comes instead only to us when we generously pour ourselves out for the happiness of others. Amazing!

But there is something else I must say. As your minister, I receive many calls and letters from members when they find themselves in rather unhappy times and situations. Some of you have been deeply wounded by life, battered by painful circumstance, drained by ill health, exhausted by persistent personal demons. Know that I hear and acknowledge your unhappiness, and understand how tenacious and insidious it can be. I would never consciously say anything to trivialize another person’s unhappiness, nor suggest that joy and contentment in human living is easy to find. For some of us it is not. I know that what I am saying about how to find happiness is very hard for some of you to hear and act on at this time in your life. When we are hurting and unhappy, it is very difficult to think about picking our spirits up and taking the risk of reaching out to form new, life-sustaining relationships...I know it is hard.

Still I must say it, to those who are unhappy and to those who are not, TRUE HAPPINESS CANNOT BE HAD IN HUMAN OR WORLDLY ISOLATION. Happiness comes only to the one who has taken the risks of giving, serving and sharing. I know how difficult it is to think about giving when you feel you haven’t been getting much from life. It’s painful to think about sharing when you are sure you are all but depleted of personal resources. But it is the only way, my dear/lovely friends. It’s the only way to save yourself from the hell of unhappiness, and find a personal kingdom of contentedness.

And so I pray, with all my heart, that each and every one of you will pursue happiness. Pursue it not in greedy isolation of yuppified competitive individualism, but rather in RELATIONSHIPS. In the sweet and simple dance of loving/caring relationships...for that is where life’s richest treasures lie. It is WE who must pour out of ourselves that which shall pave our own road to happiness. For it is, ever and always, as St. Luke put it so beautifully almost 2,000 years ago, "Give, and there will be gifts for you, a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, [it] will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back." Believe it. Amen.

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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