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.