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Sunday, June 24, 2012

If It Feels Good Do It (in moderation of course)--A Sermon

If It Feels Good Do It (in moderation of course)
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
June 24, 2012

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.
Epicurus, Principle Doctrines 5

During the season of summer we honor the spiritual path of awe and wonder, the via positiva.   My sermons for this summer are about happiness.  What is happiness and how can we be happier?  It isn’t quite correct to tie particular emotions or feelings to a particular path, but if we had to do so, we might call this the happy path. Feel good. Celebrate. Enjoy life. Appreciate what is. Drink it up.

I want to suggest that happiness is found and is a result of traveling all four paths. If the via negativa, via creativa, and via transformativa don’t promise happiness why take them? But the via positiva seems like a natural place to start a discussion, maybe even a quest, about what happiness is and what we might do to be happier.

One of the sages we will encounter on this path is University of Virginia psychology professor, Jonathan Haidt (“Height”). In preparing for this sermon, I read his book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. I will be coming back to him quite a bit in these series of sermons. Dr. Haidt takes ten ideas from ancient philosophy and religion in regards to happiness and evaluates these ideas in regards to what we are learning from modern psychology.

It is a great read. I learned a lot and after reading it, I actually feel happier. For the most part, I am a happy person. I can get down. I have gone through periods of depression. I battle addictions, struggle with anxiety, and tend to give in to habits that make me less happy than more happy, but overall, I am a happy person. I am happier now than at any other time in my life.

After reading The Happiness Hypothesis, I realized that happiness is combination of many things and there are some things that we can do to increase our happiness. I learned that happiness is given to us by our genes, not so much a set point but a set range. There are, however, some things that we can do that can expand that range and that can help us stay in the top end of that happiness range. I will be talking more about that. I liked learning that in the book. There are some things I can do and that I can help others do to increase happiness, including preaching a series of sermons on happiness. That made me happy.

I also realized that happiness is a worthwhile goal. I have a couple of messages in my head. They want to downplay happiness. One probably comes from my religious background although I am not sure. I think I had a happy church life as a child, but somewhere along the line I got the message that if you are happy you are being selfish. What about suffering, climate change, human rights abuses and all of that? Amidst all the suffering in the world what gives you the right to be happy? Jesus wasn’t happy. The Lord wants you to suffer so take up the cross and be miserable like he was.

The other message is that happiness is for simple people. Serious intellectuals dress in black, are filled with existential angst, read the French deconstructionists, and write dark poetry. Happiness is for yokels and stand up comics. I should say, that many stand up comics, the really funny ones, are well-acquainted with adversity. That is why they are funny. They have reframed adversity through humor and come out on the other side.

I am not exactly sure what to make of those messages that haunt my psyche. I think that they might need some unraveling in therapy. : )  My initial thought to that is that happiness is connected in a major way to purposefulness. We are going to talk about that in this series of sermons as well. We may not think of it as happiness or call it happiness, but if your strength is to consciously engage the dark side of life as vocation or avocation, that might amount to the same thing.  My hunch is that Mother Theresa and maybe even Kurt Vonnegut were for the most part, happy. 

I want to talk today about pleasure, particularly, the happiness that comes from pleasure. Before I go there, I want to talk about the happiness equation. Math makes me happy. I am happy that Jonathan Haidt put happiness in equation form. This is the equation:

H = S + C + V

H = Happiness we experience

S = Biological set point

C = Conditions of life

V = Voluntary activities

Happiness comes from our genes. We know this by people who we think should be happy. They can even win the lottery, yet after the initial euphoria, they generally go back to the happiness point before the windfall. Similarly, a person may suffer a financial set back or accident and after adjustment, even though the set back or accident changed that part of her life completely, she will go back to her initial happiness set point before the set back or accident.

Psychologists now think it is more of a set range than a point. We are destined by our genes for a certain level of happiness. It is possible to change the internal setting. Haidt mentions three things that can do that, meditation, Prozac, and cognitive therapy. I will talk more about that as well later in this series. 

We can also bump up that set point or put ourselves in the high end of the range by C and V, the conditions of life and by certain voluntary activities. Haidt writes:
The level of happiness (H) that you actually experience is determined by your biological set point (S) plus the conditions of your life (C) plus the voluntary activities (V) you do. p. 91

The Buddha was all about voluntary activities, for example the eightfold path that included meditation and mindfulness. He didn’t seem to think conditions of life mattered at all. He could get in the zone. Not everyone is the Buddha and there are some things that we can change about our external circumstances that can help regarding happiness.

These include
  1. decreasing the level of noise, especially noise that is variable and intermittent. 
  2. Also, reducing your commuting time. 
  3. Increasing the amount of control over your life and your choices will increase your happiness. 
  4. Increasing your approval of your body image.  This doesn’t have to do with attractiveness but it has to do with shame. Decreasing the level of shame about your body will lead to more happiness. Haidt says that “improvements in a person’s appearance do lead to lasting increases in happiness.” P. 93 
  5. The big one is the strength and the number of good relationships.  

In other words, externals do matter. That is the C in the equation.

H = S + C + V.

What is the V?

Voluntary activities. Not all activities make a person happy. Haidt writes that
“Chasing after wealth and prestige usually backfire. People who report the greatest interest in attaining money, fame, or beauty are consistently found to be less happy, and even less healthy, than those who pursue less materialistic goals.” P. 95

Many of us will just have to take that on faith. Or we can read the sordid tales of the unhappy lives of celebrities in the grocery aisle. We think they have everything. Why can’t they get their lives together? But ancient wisdom and modern science seem to tell us that fame, wealth, achievement, and beauty lasts for a little while, then it’s back to set point.

This is the ancient wisdom from Ecclesiastes. In that marvelous chapter two, the speaker who has everything, achieves everything, enjoys all the pleasures of life, and says,
“Then I considered all that my hands and done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind…”

He is back to set point.

But, there are activities, voluntary activities, the V in the equation, that can increase our level of happiness on an ongoing basis. One is physical or bodily pleasure. This is why when humans gather together they eat. Heidt writes:
“At meal times, people report the highest levels of happiness on average. People really enjoy eating, especially in the company of others…” p. 95

In addition to pleasure that consists of food, sex, backrubs, and cool breezes, there are also gratifications. Haidt writes:
“Gratifications are activities that engage you fully, draw on your strengths, and allow you to lose self-consciousness.” P. 96

The idea is to arrange your day and your environment to increase both pleasures and gratifications. Appreciate the sunset and lose yourself in a meaningful activity that uses your strengths. That is the V.

Now there is a tendency to overdue on the pleasure. If eating a Whopper makes me happy supersizing it will make me super happy.   Right?  That is actually not true. Pleasures must be spaced and as your grandmother told you, in moderation, to retain their potency to increase happiness.

Pleasures are not in themselves lasting. That is why they can tend to be disparaged.  Pleasures can be addictive and insistent, calling us back and away from activities that might help us in the long run.

Addiction in part comes from “if it feels good do it” again and again and again. Haidt writes:
Because the elephant has a tendency to over indulge, the rider needs to encourage it to get up and move on to another activity. P. 96

What is the elephant? A metaphor he uses for the mind is a rider on an elephant. The rider is our consciousness and reason. The elephant is the unconscious, the feelings, desires, instincts that are our evolutionary heritage. They are the forces that move and motivate us. The trick is to find ways to train the elephant. More on that to come as well.

The simple point I want to make today in addition to whetting your appetite for this series of sermons on happiness is to suggest that
  1. happiness comes from both within and without. 
  2. Happiness is a result primarily from biology. 
  3. But we can tinker with that if necessary through meditation, Prozac, and cognitive therapy,
  4. and we can add to happiness by adjusting some of our external conditions and 
  5. by consciously engaging in voluntary activities that both increase gratifications through using our strengths and 
  6. by enjoying the pleasures of life in a way that honors them, by neither indulging or detaching.

Those voluntary activities also include experiencing the pleasures of life. You won’t get lasting happiness as Solomon told us, but when we are mindful about them, they make life tasty.

It is not bad to feel good.

Or if it feels good, do it, in moderation of course.

Amen.

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