What Makes People Happy?

May 21, 2010

CNN has asked 5 religious leaders to answer the question, “What makes people happy?” The answers, though just sound bites (did we expect anything else from CNN?) are interesting:

“Expert in mind-body healing” Deepak Chopra: “The most important thing to happiness is to make other people happy. There are other ways to happiness–when you express creativity, when you have meaning and purpose in your life, when you see opportunity instead of problems–but the fastest way to being happy is to make other people happy.”

My response: I understand that he means we find fulfillment and happiness in serving others, and I agree to some extent. But one thing I’ve learned in life is that you absolutely cannot make other people happy. It can’t be done. Happiness comes from what we do and what we are, not what others do for us. Too often we try so hard to make everyone else happy we make ourselves miserable.

“Humanist chaplain at Harvard University” Greg Epstein: “We know intuitively that perfect happiness does not exist–it is a fantasy that leads to disappointment or depression if we insist on chasing it as if we are entitled to it.

“However, there is so much imperfect happiness to enjoy as a byproduct of things we can do our best to achieve together: engaging relationships, good works, connection to loved ones and to humanity. These things, not belief in God, are why churches and temples work; and they’re why I believe in building humanist communities for the nonreligious.”

Me: I like this idea of “imperfect happiness” as coming from the things we do together as humans. Rather than Chopra’s focus on [i]making [/i]others happy, this emphasis on human connection as a means to doing good is quite appealing to me.

Jonathan Falwell, Pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church: “Many people believe that happiness is a result of external situations in life. Unfortunately, that kind of happiness is short-lived if it is not accompanied by happiness stirring within the soul.

“The happiness that springs forth from the heart and soul is the only path to true satisfaction in life. And I believe that kind of happiness is found through a personal relationship with God accomplished through the sacrifice of His only Son, Jesus Christ. He is the source of soul satisfaction.”

Me: There’s something oddly self-absorbed in this approach. It’s as if nothing we do matters if we haven’t been saved (and to be fair, that is pretty much Falwell’s doctrinal position), so we can ignore everyone and everything and focus on our own satisfaction. Maybe I’m misinterpreting him, but this doesn’t sound right to me.

Harold Kushner, Rabbi: “Happiness is always a byproduct. You don’t achieve happiness by striving to be happy. You achieve happiness by striving to be a good person. And happiness shows up when you weren’t even watching.

“I discern two dimensions to happiness–one personal and one interpersonal. Happiness results from the fullest utilization of your talent. And finally, happiness results from knowing when you had made someone else’s life better.”

Me: Beautifully said. I have nothing to add.

Joel Osteen, Pastor, Lakewood Church: “I think that it is important to draw a distinction between happiness and joy. Happiness is determined by one’s circumstances. On the other hand, joy is a more permanent state of being and is not determined by one’s present circumstances.

“A person can keep their joy even when things are going badly, when something temporarily makes them unhappy. I believe joy comes from having meaning and purpose in our life. God has a purpose for each and every one of us, and by putting our faith in God we can live a more joy-filled life.”

Me: I have heard this joy/happiness distinction all my life, but I don’t accept it. You can be happy when life sucks, and you can be unhappy when things are going well. But that definitional quibble aside, all he’s giving is a fairly empty platitude: God has a purpose, so have faith. (I realize that this is a quick soundbite article, but Osteen’s response is pretty vacuous.)

My take on happiness is that it reflects an approach to life, an attitude, if you will. It involves giving your best effort (see Rabbi Kushner’s response above), but it also recognizes that there is joy in imperfection, joy in the striving. It isn’t a solitary affair (sorry, Rev. Falwell) but something we do together as humans. The two great commandments are to love God and love our neighbor. I believe in God, but I also believe happiness doesn’t require faith in God, necessarily. I know lots of happy atheists, and they are those who simply find happiness in life as it is lived.

Everyone Draw Mohammed Day

May 20, 2010

So, today is “Everyone Draw Mohammed” Day. The gist of it is that because some idiotic Islamofascists threaten death to anyone who blasphemes by drawing a likeness of Mohammed, we should show our contempt for such Neanderthals by drawing anything, anyone, and labeling it “Mohammed” or any of the variant spellings.

Mind you, I’ve been guilty of blasphemous mockery of things Mormon, and for that I take full responsibility and again apologize to those I have offended (I got kicked off a message board for a mildly snarky top ten list poking fun at the “Mormon Scholars Testify” web site, so I know how sensitive people are about ridicule; again, I apologize, particularly to my friend Dan Peterson). But I’ve thought better of it. I don’t like it when people ridicule my most deeply held beliefs, and it’s wrong for me to do that to others, no matter how vehemently I disagree with those beliefs.

So, yes, I have nothing but contempt for the knuckleheads who threaten people with violence and death because they can’t handle the tiniest bit of criticism or, heaven forbid, humor. Their latest missive calls today “a special day to make many supplications incessantly for the destruction of the kuffar, their armies, their embassies, their flags, their military bases, their houses, their security, their disgusting way of life. May Allah (swt) punish them continuously, destroy their buildings, foil their plans and resurrect this jihad until even the eskimos must remove their sleds from the path of Allah’s auliyya and mujahideen, amin!” Yeah, I know, I’m giving them more attention than they deserve, but what I wanted to say is that our righteous indignation (that’s a Mormon phrase for being justifiably pissed off) should be directed at these brain-dead haters, not at Muslims at large.

It makes no sense to attack or ridicule an entire religion simply because of the asshattery of some doofuses (should that be doofii?) who claim to adhere to that religion. The proper response to these moral cretins is indeed righteous indignation, well-spoken ridicule, and utter disdain. Rather than hate them or attack them, however, the best revenge (if that’s what anyone wants) is to leave them to fester in the sewage of their twisted devotion to hatred masquerading as religion. God, or Allah, or whatever you wish to name Him, is bigger than these people. We should be bigger than them, too. That’s why I’m not drawing a picture of Mohammed. I love and respect my Muslim friends, and I won’t hurt them because an insignificant little group is is overcompensating for something.

I’d Rather Be Watching Friends

May 19, 2010

I went to the gym as usual this morning to do my workout (weights and then 40 minutes running on a treadmill). Next to me was a woman at least 10 years older than I am, running faster than I was and at an incline. I glanced over and noticed that she had been running for over an hour and didn’t seem to be exerting herself much at all. Seeing her effortlessly move while I sweated and huffed was simultaneously motivating to me and slightly depressing.

After a cold shower–the water heaters at Gold’s Gym are no match for peak hours–I got in the car and headed to work. A young woman passed me on University Parkway in a Ford Focus with Arizona plates (I figure she must be a BYU student). At a stoplight, I saw that the frame around the license plate read, “I’d rather be watching Friends.”

Now, I have nothing against television or even “Friends,” which these days seems to have faded from its prior omnipresence in syndication. But it struck me this morning that of all the things I wish I had more free time to do, watching television is at the bottom of the list.

When I was dealing with depression, I watched more TV than I do now. These days I might watch TV when I’m loading the dishwasher, but I’ve been trying to read more and do some research for my book. But a couple of years ago, I would come home from work and immediately lie down and turn on the TV and watch whatever was on. Or I would get on the computer and read a ton of message boards and news sites and even just look up random stuff on Wikipedia (how pathetic is that?).

What I found was that I was withdrawing from everyone I loved and cared about. I’m not a horribly social person, but at one point the only human interaction I was having was with my wife and kids (during commercials, naturally). I did Facebook and email and caught up with all my old friends and relatives. But I never actually saw them or spoke with them. I made friends, or so I thought, but it’s difficult to be a real friend when you have never seen each other and communicate only through typed messages.

So in a very real sense for me, my hooking myself up to the information flow from TV and the Internet made me less connected and far more isolated. I was becoming my own island in my room (cue “Brian Wilson“). All I needed was my own sandbox.

I feel like I’ve gotten off the island, and I’m alive again. I go out once in a while. I have friends. I get to the gym regularly. I’m writing again. And the last thing I want to do is hang out with Joey and Chandler.