The Complications of Happiness

I have a friend who is a holocaust survivor. As a small child she was sent to relatives and eventually made her way to Canada where she lives today in Windsor. A couple of years ago some friends and I took this woman out for dinner to celebrate her birthday. Of course, during the dinner we were wishing her a happy birthday. At one point she looked at us and asked “What is it with all of you – you’re so obsessed with happiness. I’m not interested in having a happy life. I want to have a rich life, a deep life, a complicated life, a meaningful life.” It’s almost as if happiness was not even on her radar.

Her statement about happiness has stuck with me. I have to agree with her that I too want a rich, complicated, deep and meaningful life. But, I also deeply want to be happy! I am somewhat obsessed with looking for happiness

My Mother was one of seven children – born in the deep South during the Depression. In the midst of the depression her father died – leaving my Grandmother alone with 7 children. As you might imagine, the stories about my mother’s childhood paint a picture of something that was quite difficult and grim. Yet, of those seven children, it is interesting to me to have observed that two of them were particularly unhappy adults.. furrowed brows, pessimistic, overwhelmed – which is what I would have expected all of them to be. But, 3 of them were just your average sometimes happy / sometimes unhappy people. The remarkable thing is that the other 2 children were notably happy adults – hard working, optimistic, fun-loving, wonderful people to be around.

Seven children with pretty much the same genes, the same childhood but with vastly different outcomes. What accounts for that?

Research shows that 50% of our ability to be “happy” (measured scientifically somehow!) is determined by our genetic make-up. Circumstances such as income level and educational level account for another 10% of our ability to be happy. That leaves the good and the bad news that 40% of our ability to be happy depends on our intentional behavior. Darn it! And Hooray!

Every single person alive wants to be happy. If not happy exactly, we want to be content or to live from a place of deep joy. But how do we find that elusive happiness when it so often seems hidden/ distant/unavailable to us? The poet Naomi Shihab Nye says that happiness is like a bird that lights on the neighbor’s roof. Sings and then flies off. How can we lure it to land on our own roof? I have learned some lesson about happiness from some unusual teachers and even unintentionally from my own self.

This winter I accidentally taught myself something about happiness. I went to my yoga class and hung up my black down vest before the class. It was a sunny day, and I left the class and was half way home when I discovered that I didn’t have my vest. I turned around, went back to the studio, interrupted the next class, looked all over for my vest, which was nowhere to be found. Eventually I gave up and got in my car. About half way home again, I looked down – (pause!) I was wearing the vest!! Isn’t that the best lesson ever? “I need it! Where is it! Help me find it! .... Oh, I have it on.” We look everywhere outside ourselves to find the very thing that we already possess.

Another lesson from a 10 year old boy happened right here at BUC. A couple of years ago, I was working the check out at Rummage on a Saturday. You probably know that on Saturday, people can put as much into one grocery bag as they can fit and then it costs $5.00. Generally the shoppers on Saturday seem to be people without a lot of resources. On this particular day, there was this boy about 10 years old, wearing a tattered coat who came in with his mother who was pre-occupied. They agreed to meet at the check out stand and he was sent off on his own. He went right to the toy room. After about 1⁄2 hour, he was hanging around the check-out table and when he saw his mother, he ran up to her and said... “Mom! I got everything I wanted and my bag isn’t even full!” (repeat)

(pause) I don’t know that I’ve ever said those words in my life. How many times have I ever felt that I got everything I wanted? Oh, the difference between meeting the world with joy and meeting it with some need for perfection or some constant need for more than I have -- that leads to unhappiness.

There is a Buddhist story about a monk who went to his mentor complaining about some situation. His mentor told the monk to get a glass of water. When he returned with the water, the mentor gave the monk a pinch of salt and told him to put it in the glass of water. He did so. Then, the mentor said, “now drink the water”. The monk took a sip of the water, spit it out and said it tastes terrible. “It is bitter, It is awful.” “Ahhh”. said the mentor. Then he took the monk to a lake. As they stood by the lake, the mentor put a pinch of salt in the lake. Then, he asked the monk to fetch a glass of water from the lake and drink it. “Ahh”, proclaimed the monk, this water is sweet and fresh and delicious. “Ahhh yes”, said the mentor. “My friend, be a lake, don’t be a glass”. When bad things or bad people befall you, if you want to be happy, be a lake, not a small glass.

Buddhist writer, Sylvia Boorstien writes that she was in her car on the way to the dentist and she got stuck in a traffic jam that was not moving. Her typical interior response went something like this. “I should have left sooner. I always cut things too close. This is so stupid. I’ve waited a month for this appointment and now he’s not going to be able to see me. I probably need a root canal and now I’m going to have to wait again to get an appointment and we’re leaving on vacation next week. Maybe I need oral surgery... and on and on

Another monologue that she mentioned could have gone through her head might go something like this...”Darn it. I wish I had left home sooner – but I didn’t. I was doing the best I could at the moment. And, now I’m stuck in this traffic jam and I may or may not get into the dentist. Look at all the other people in all these cars. They all have to be somewhere too. Their plans are being disrupted. There’s nothing much we can do. I hope all of these people can remain calm and can get where they are going as soon as possible just as I wish that for myself...

With either monologue, the traffic jam does not change. But the first way of thinking leads to suffering. The second way of thinking leads one to be a bit outside oneself and with a somewhat more peaceful feeling. We will all get where we are going eventually. Some things can’t change. The only thing that can change is how we experience and think about any given situation.

I want to give you a little exercise. You are going to think of yourself walking into a store – you can choose any store that you like – and when you get in that store you are going to look around and you may have three things for free from that store. Take a moment to think about which store you will go in, and what three things you will choose to take home.

I actually did this exercise many years ago when I had the privilege to be working in a women’s prison. We were a rather small group, and I asked them this question and then asked them each to write about what they came up with. It was another of those pivotal moments for me. I shall never forget one youngish woman (maybe in her late 20s) who read her response. “I would go to the 7/11 and I would first of all get a bag of suckers for my kids. Then I’d get a whole watermelon to take home for my family and we’d have a picnic. I’d also get a beach towel because I like to lay out in the sun.”

I’m wondering how her list might compare to yours! I know that I quickly hid my own paper and certainly did not read it to the group that day. I found myself wondering many things. How could it be that this woman’s desires were so small? Did she have a lack of imagination? Or did poverty play such a role in her life that such simple things would be so amazing to her? Did prison make her desires so small? Or, did she know something that I didn’t know about happiness? The first thing she thought of was getting something for someone else -- her kids, her family.

Research does tell us that thinking of others, caring for others, reaching out does also tend to make US happy. Acts of kindness make us happy. Gratefulness makes us happy. The more happiness any one of us has, the more happiness everyone has. There have even been experiments with clinically depressed hospitalized people who were given an assignment to do something for another person, and they reported feeling better themselves.

Another thing that brings happiness is believing in something larger than ourselves. The good news is that when happiness eludes us, we can be sure that we are not alone. And, that very awareness can shift something in us. Whenever we are unhappy, we might think of all the others who are also in our circumstance. The Buddhists recommend sending a blessing to all those who suffer when we are suffering; When we are beset by worries, we might send a blessing like “may all who are worried right now, find ease.” When we are ill, “May all who are ill, find healing in some way.” May all people who are sad, be held in compassion. We have a unique opportunity to somehow lift our own load when we realize it is shared with others.

We have an opportunity to do that here each Sunday of course. Either overtly by sharing our joys and concerns – or even just by physically being here. By tangibly being a part of this larger community – we are reminded that we are not alone. “Be a lake”...The good news is that we belong to something much larger than our own small life. That is no small part of what churches do for anyone. Being here gives us an opportunity to be loved and to love. To be happy and to interact with others in a way that might lead to their happiness.

Our own church mission statement says that BUC exists in order to create a free and welcoming religious community that encourages lives of integrity, learning, service, and joy.

Our reason for existing as a community – is in large part to encourage each other to find joy. Our faith isn’t so much about teaching people how to be fearful, cautious,, rule-followers. UUism calls us to live bravely, freely, joyously, generously.

Find joy by recognizing that you don’t need it all – half a bag of used toys may be enough to be happy about. Find joy by doing something for someone else – buying a bag a bag of suckers at the 7/11 for your kids might bring you joy. Find joy by recognizing that others struggle just as you do. “May all beings who are struggling find ease”. When troubles beset you, be a lake – not a small glass”. And, maybe even discover that you already have happiness zipped right up around you like a down vest. Let me read you a section from a poem by Jeanne Lohman

“Stunned by the astonishing mix in this uneasy world that plunges in a single day from despair to hope and back again, I commend my life to Ruskin’s difficult duty of delight, and to that most beautiful form of courage, to be happy.”

Let us spend some moments in silence, contemplating the meaning and source of our own happiness.

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