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Contrary to lyrics of “South Pacific,” it takes more than happy talk to be happy. It involves more than talking about things we like to do. It takes more than talking about the moon floating in the sky or looking at a lily on the lake or talking about a bird learning how to fly, making all the music he can make. Yet, it is all those things that help us to learn the ways and wiles of being happy.
We tell our children that happiness is all we want for them, while we insinuate the limits and goals of that state of mind. Our desire for them mimics our desire for ourselves. It’s a human need and want so great that philosophers have tried to define and describe it for years.
Most recently, Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophic Reviews, wrote these comments in an article published by the New York Times: “Happiness studies are booming in the social sciences, and governments are moving toward quantitative measures of a nation’s overall happiness, meant to supplement traditional measures of wealth and productivity. As I see it, happiness involves four things, and the first one is mostly a matter of luck. You have to be sufficiently free of suffering—physical and mental—for happiness to be even possible. The second requirement for happiness is fulfilling work. A third feature is what the ancient Greeks called the proper ‘use of pleasure.’ Finally, and often most important, there is the happiness of human love, where my happiness arises from and contributes to the happiness of my spouse, my children, my friends—even perhaps of all humankind.”
Is this just more happy talk or is it common sense that we have assiduously avoided? Hubby Dear and I watched an intriguing video a few weeks ago, a video that addressed this topic. It offered the suggestion that happiness was essentially connected to an exploration of our deepest desires. The suggestion was clear. To be happy, one must practice happiness. The opening scene depicted Singh, a young father in the slums of Kalkuta, departing from his tiny hovel at 5 a.m. and riding his bicycle to work as a rickshaw driver. His life, apparently a dismal one, was filled with the joy of being...simply being. Singh believed that, though poor, he was richest of men. His family had a place to live, food to eat, a community of friends and children who awaited his nightly return home. What more could he ask for?
Some might view him as an optimist who is out of touch with reality. Yet, his perception was echoed in the lifestyle of the bayou people of Louisiana. Right here, in the USA, there are those who find paradise on earth as they paddle the marshy outlets where “you never know what you’ll see but you’ll always see something.”
Like Singh, these are people who have discovered what really matters in life. They have found variety in their daily routines by their intentional behavior. They look at the sunrise and the sunset. They listen to the stillness. They believe that nature is good medicine. For them, it is the dopamine necessary for feelings of happiness. It is the life they choose.
That says it all. Happiness is a life choice. Be what we want to be. Work so that we can live our life in tranquility. Sounds simple, so why don’t we do it? Why do we remain stuck in the ennui of a “same ole, same ole” existence? I suspect that a partial response is that we are reluctant to do something difficult just because we like to do it. We refrain from having clear goals, to know what to do next. We don’t really believe that both pleasure and devastation are short-lived. True joy, profound happiness are discovered when we realize that we do really well when things are really bad.
To demonstrate that verity, a portion of the video featured James Treadwell telling of his admiration for his mother who was involved in a tragic accident that destroyed her physical appearance. While in her sister-in-law’s vehicle, the two had a disagreement. She opened the door to leave but got caught, was dragged under the vehicle, which ran over her. Her previously beautiful face was literally torn to pieces. During treatment, she sought counseling and unearthed a long held secret that cracked her denial system.
Coping with the discovery and thoughts of suicide brought her to a new level of acceptance. She found that she did not understand and need not understand all that happens in life. Choosing was important. To make the choice to be happy is to be happy. We may think that all adversity is bad but scientific data, underscoring spiritual formation, tells us that this is not true. Science has noted that happy people show a negative reaction to adversity but don’t stay there.
Contrary to popular belief, science has also uncovered data supporting the fact that people aren’t happier with more money than covers basic needs. We are adaptable people. We can choose to adapt to what we have and want more or simply adapt to what we have.
Studies also affirm the fact that all happy people had close supportive family and friends. When we are so busy working to make more money that we keep diminishing our circle of support and increase our stress level, we destroy the environment in which happiness can be had. Long hours of work literally cause early death. Pursuit of the gross national product is an obstacle to the enjoyment of gross national happiness!
We need only to think holistically and spiritually. We need to rethink our narrow understanding of community and remove barriers that create isolation. We need to connect to the universe, to all creation and rid ourselves of the fundamentalism that marks everyone “out” but ourselves. We need to meet each other and greet each other as brothers and sisters, as family.
When we do so, when we live hand-to-hand, no one lives hand to mouth. Nobody loses. Everybody wins. What does it take to be happy? It takes compassion, cooperation and collaboration. What does it give us? It gives us a world where all people experience an interesting phenomenon: the more happiness you have, the more everyone has. It’s a world of love.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.