By Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D.
Do we look happy to you?
The other day I had a conversation with one of my Buddhist friends. During the conversation, he said something interesting. “If Moses, Jesus, Mohammad and the Buddha were having a conversation with one another, they would be talking about the same thing in their own way.” “Really” I replied. “What would they be talking about?” “Happiness” he responded. Having studied religions for the past 45 years, I thought his answer a little simplistic, but as I thought about it, I wondered. These religious leaders would undoubtedly be discussing their respective notions of God and the path to salvation, but happiness? Is the essence of religious enlightenment and the pathway to salvation really the path to happiness? Or does happiness mark the one who is on their way to enlightenment or salvation? These are interesting questions that demand further exploration.
Because we live in a country that celebrates abundance, we erroneously believe that the more money we have, the more things we can buy, and more things will bring us happiness.
In an interesting article on religion and happiness, Mark Larrimore points out that most often, happiness and religion are understood as nearly mutually exclusive concepts. “Religion,” he notes, “isn’t about happiness. It responds to unhappiness” (2010, p. 569). In other words, the promise of religion is the promise of empowerment, which gives one the strength to face the challenges of life. It is not the promise of material things. To think otherwise, reduces religion to a facile self-help phenomenon and happiness is tied inextricably to the “successful” accumulation of stuff. Outside a
select few Megachurches and the televangelists at their helm, such a reductionism is rarely tolerated from a religious perspective. Still, for those of us who live in the United States, abundance is part of our mythological structure and defines not only happiness, but religious expectations that make the abundance associated with the graciousness of religion the source of happiness. As construed by this mythological perspective, abundance, even if something we do not fully share, is too often associated with happiness. Because of this, the myth of abundance and the religion it defines is at odds with a more traditional understanding of religious narratives that include self-denial as a central soteriological motif and castigates material possessions as distractions that detract from the fealty and devotion necessary to religious commitment.
Does happiness, then, play a role in religious devotion? If so, does happiness denote merely a fleeting emotion in response to religious experience, or is it something more permanent? Is it part of the fabric of religious experience, a phenomenon that plays a central role in our path to and attainment of salvation? To answer these questions, I wish to quickly address the role of happiness in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. By examining happiness in this way, I hope it will be a powerful critique of expressions of faith that places the primary emphasis upon individuals and only a secondary emphasis on the community of faith. Happiness is more than an individual emotion. It is a relational reality denoting the depth of spirituality grounded in our relationships with others and as such, is the mark of spiritual health and embodiment.
Happiness and Judaism
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes in his article that although the Jewish people have endured thousands of years of heartbreak, torture, and sadness, they still write and tell stories of happiness. This is as true of the diasporic populations of the post and second temple periods as it was of those who survived the horrors of the Holocaust. “If happiness is the refusal to be defeated by tragedy,” he writes, “Judaism is part of its history” (2014, p. 12). Happiness, Sacks notes, “is not central to the Judaic value system.” From the heroic figures of the biblical text to Jewish philosophers and religious teachers, the goal of Judaism is holiness not happiness. The words of the biblical heroes as well as the prominent members of the Jewish tradition throughout all the hardships endured bespeak a “sublimity in a life lived by high ideals.” Within the context of life’s struggles and as one reflects upon the quiet victories brought by endurance toward the end of life, there is a realization—one might call it “happiness”—that despite all the difficulties there is a sense that a life lived by the virtues of one’s faith and grounded in loyalty to God’s call upon their life, in such a life there is a sense of blessedness that transcends one’s individuality finding its place in the communal reality of which one is a part.
While it may be individuals that realize they are blessed, blessedness does not start with, nor does it end in a solitary existence. Blessedness/happiness grows out of one’s relationships with others marked by thankfulness, which means that the state of blessedness/happiness if it is to truly endure is rooted not in self, but in a community (Sachs, 2014). The thankfulness one expresses to God is the same thankfulness that marks one’s relationship to others, a mindfulness that is grounded in the struggles endured and the expectations from promises given, but a fideistic trait that builds a contagious character motivating others to live thankfully and humbly in the world. While blessedness/happiness may not be a virtue of Judaism, Sachs argues that it does bespeak a lifestyle rooted in the covenantal structure (community) in which God’s holiness is revealed and lived in the thankfulness people share with one another. This, from the perspective of Judaism, is happiness.
Happiness and Christianity
When I queried a library database for “Christian Happiness,” hundreds of hits were identified, but few discussed the role of happiness in the Christian tradition. If these journal articles are indicative of the state of things, Christians tend not to discuss happiness, at least not formally. All too often, a Christian lifestyle is defined stoically and is marked by austerity and self-denial. In this, happiness represents abundance and self-indulgence, which is contrary to living a life of faith. But is this true? Is the life of faith for a Christian diametrically opposed to happiness?
The dictionary defines Stoicism as “an ancient Greek school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium. The school taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge; the wise live in harmony with the divine Reason that governs nature and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.” Because of its impact upon Christianity, Christians are often thought Stoic in nature.
While Stoicism had a marked impact upon the development of Western Christianity, David Naugle (2006) thinks that a biblical look at the Christian faith mitigates the Stoic influence and emphasizes a life of faith in which happiness plays a more formidable role in the life of a Christian. To understand its role, then, one must look deeply into the soteriological narrative of Christianity. The promise of Christianity is the promise of salvation that comes through the meritorious work of Jesus as the Christ. Drawing together the world of its Hebrew heritage as well as the Hellenistic world in which it was born, Christianity broadens its scope beyond the ethnicity of its Jewish parents and instead embraces the world as its parish. The result is a novel understanding of the place of God in human development and identifies salvation as a process that reorients human beings to their world and each other. Identifying with its Hebrew heritage, the Christian definition of this reorientation is at least threefold. On the one hand, the theological reorientation is rooted in God’s holiness, which means that this relationship is measured by its uniqueness, its difference, which then becomes the measure for Christian maturity. Second, the uniqueness/holiness of the process of salvation/redemption is not an abstraction but is something that is played out in the everydayness of the believer. One cannot claim to love God, in other words, and hate their brother or sister for if they do, they are a liar (I John 4:20). Finally, the relationship marked by holiness is a relationship of love. As Jesus pointed out, one’s love of God is measured by one’s love of self and others (Matthew 22:36-40). Indeed, the relationality of love as rooted in God’s holiness is the point of salvation for in it is discovered the power to overcome the alienation of sin. The barriers that previously threatened human relationality and the ability to form a more harmonious social order need no longer be.
It is in this context that we begin to understand a Christian notion of happiness. Happiness takes place when holiness, redemption and community all converge in the context of love. Happiness does not mean the absence of struggle, for the work of redemption is often difficult, challenging and sometimes calls us to do that which, from the perspective of happiness as abundance, seems counterintuitive. However, when love calls us to the sacrifice of even our self, happiness pervades for it is not about us, but ultimately it is about our love of God manifest in our love of others. Christian happiness is the deep satisfaction that transpires when our efforts result in profound and heartfelt acts of love towards others.
Happiness and Islam
Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes of an Islamic version of happiness and after accounting for the many words used for happiness in the Koran, notes that the best example of happiness may be found in the Prophet himself who, according to many of his companions, “always had a happy countenance and smiled” (2014, p. 79). Indeed, Nasr notes that “Being the prophet and that universal or perfect man par excellence for Muslims, he could not but reflect, even in his daily life, the permanent inner state of celestial happiness and contentment…” (p. 79). If we are to understand an Islamic view of happiness, then, we need to discover what made the Prophet smile.
The Prophets commitment to, and trust in God is that which puts a smile on his face and establishes contentment in his heart. However, while commitment to God is fundamental, there is more to it, for one’s commitment is nothing unless accompanied by an abiding loyalty to the Divine Law. The relationship one has with God is marked by responsibility to the Divine Law, which is the divine decree that guides the faithful one through life and it is in the context of these responsibilities that happiness is found. Nasr writes:
Whether we like it or not, we have accepted this trust, the responsibilities that go with it, and the danger of falling into the state of unhappiness. This is what defines our nature as human beings. This is why the fulfillment of these responsibilities brings with it, ultimately, joy and happiness, enabling us to be ourselves in the real sense, no matter how difficult fulfilling these responsibilities might be, and why the refusal to accept these responsibilities leads to the state of wretchedness (2014, p. 81).
Responsibility requires a disciplined life, a life that leads to happiness. When one’s responsibility to the Law is marked by perfection, one’s happiness is made complete, which explains the smile on the Prophet’s face. However, what is the nature of this perfection? Perfection is marked by the strength of one’s devotion to God and one’s devotion to God is dependent upon the disciplined life that overcomes the desire of what Nasr calls “the passionate self” (2014, p. 90). Sadness is the end of passion, but the discipline of loving God brings the discipline to love all that God has created and such love is the source of happiness regardless of the challenges life may bring. The perfection of his devotion brought a smile to the Prophet’s face, for in his devotion to God, the Prophet found his happiness.
Happiness and Buddhism
Finally, what is a Buddhist notion of happiness? Whereas for Judaism, Christianity and Islam happiness is premised upon the reality of a loving God, God does not play a central role in Buddhism and so God cannot be, as it is in the other religions the source of happiness. Interestingly, while happiness seems to be a secondary characteristic for the other religions we have examined, for Buddhism, happiness plays a central role. This is because the focus on Buddhism is not on God, but on the illusory nature of the self and the problems it causes. The most problematic aspect of life, Buddhists believe, is suffering and if the focus of the self is on desire, suffering is sure to follow. If suffering is to be overcome, then the self must overcome the desire that causes it. But how is this done?
The self is a complex matrix of emotions, some helpful, some destructive. The latter is comprised of negative emotions and, according to his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, the most “[p]rominent among them are attachment, anger and jealousy” (2014, p. 7). These are powerful impediments to an enlightened life and giving in to these desires creates untold suffering in life and in society. According to Buddhism, however, more fundamental to life than the self is the relational nature of reality. Or, as Matthieu Ricard is quick to point out, “Everything is relation; nothing exists in and of itself” (2014, p. 15). Anger is not merely a subjective emotion restricted to the self of the angry person. Rather, as his Holiness points out, when confronted by an angry person, their anger creates an uneasiness in everyone around them. Anger and negative emotions are not an individual thing and although their immediacy may be located in the self, the suffering they create is expanded exponentially into the community in which they are released.
However, positive emotions have a similar impact. They are not restricted to the self but are released into the community making a marked impact in the cessation of desire and working toward the reduction of suffering. It would be tempting to identify happiness as the most prominent of positive emotions, but as Ricard (2014) points out, happiness is more than that. It is a “skill that requires effort and time” (p. 15). He means by this that a person who is to experience the blessing of happiness is the person who has learned to discipline their mind so that is characterized not by the clutter of ideas, but “pure consciousness” (p. 19). This, admittedly, is a difficult concept to grasp, but Buddhists seem to mean by this not the cessation of thoughts—the stuff of desire and suffering—but the discipline to acknowledge thoughts for what they are, i.e., mental images that emerge from pure consciousness itself. There is no ultimacy to them. Realizing this is the pathway to inner peace that robs thoughts of their power to create conflict and desire, which causes suffering.
But what of happiness? Happiness is the contextual reality that transpires when good will, altruism and wisdom mark the relationships shared with others. When, through the discipline of mind, negative emotions no longer hold sway over a person, their countenance is noted by happiness, which is a type of relationality that extends the peace of one’s mind into one’s environment. Put differently, happiness is not an emotion but denotes a type of relationship predicated upon absence of desire. It is what happens when the wise person is able to overcome self and instead, live for others. This is a Buddhist view of happiness.
What, then, can we say about happiness and religion? Unlike Buddhism, happiness does not hold a central place in the thought of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Like Buddhism, however, happiness is something that results when one’s life is marked by faithful devotion to their object of worship. More than that, however, happiness represents a type of transcendence that pulls one out of the egocentric nature of the self and locates the meaning of life within a loving community. Egocentrism, a condition that takes place when the self and its desires are elevated to a position of supremacy, will bring only unhappiness, a condition where the relationality of the world is compromised in an endless attempt to accumulate the stuff of one’s desires in the mistaken belief that the more one has the greater one’s happiness. The religions we have reviewed would all agree that such an elevation is akin to idolatry and a betrayal of the goodness that lies at the heart of being human. Happiness, then, is the relational and communal reality of goodness that defines the positive virtues of life and guides us in our interactions with others. Happiness is at one with holiness for it marks a distinctiveness reflective of the deeper realities of that which is spiritual. Happiness is at one with good intentions and one’s desire for the well-being of others. As such, happiness is redemptive in that those who live under its influence make a powerful impact upon others by sewing seeds of love and friendship in a world too often filled with strife.
If Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, and the Budda were in a room together, what would they discuss? It is probably impossible to answer this question with any certainty. They would discuss their views on theism; they would likely discuss that which prevents human beings from realizing the goodness that is in them. And they would probably discuss their respective understandings of redemption. Whatever the subject matter of their discussion, given the impact that all these people have had upon human history, I’m sure that their conversation would be marked by peace, a community based upon good will with the result that all of them would be happy.
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