Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Chasing Happiness--A Sermon

Chasing Happiness
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

August 26, 2012

“His disciples said to him, ‘When will the Father’s empire come?’ ‘It won’t come by watching for it. It won’t be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s empire is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.’”
--Gospel of Thomas 113

Happiness is the theme for this summer’s worship services. For the past few years I have coordinated the worship services around the four paths of Creation Spirituality. I connect a path to a season of the year. Summer with its abundance seems logically connected to the via positiva. The way or the path of wow and wonder. It is a path of fullness. It is life and light and fruitfulness. It is royalty and celebration. It is music in 4/4 time. It is joyful. It is happy.

This summer I thought it would be good to examine happiness. What can we learn about happiness from the sages in our past as well as from our present knowledge. What is happiness from the perspective of science and spirit? A helpful guide has been Jonathan Haidt and his book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.

In one of his chapters he introduces the happiness formula:

H = S + C + V

H is happiness.

S is our biological set point. According to Dr. Haidt, happiness is set for us biologically. Happiness for the most part is in our genes. It isn’t only in our genes. We can adjust our set point or our set range. Dr. Haidt says we can cheat and push up that set point in three ways,

1. medication
2. meditation and
3. cognitive behavioral therapy (ie. “fake it ‘til you make it”).

The sages past discovered early on, long before medication, that meditation was the principle way to increase happiness, to raise that set point. They knew of medication too. But it is trickier. It can have side effects. Drink that gladdens the heart can also cause other problems. The medication that the psychologist, Dr. Haidt is referring to is modern medication such as Prozac. That has been helpful, in many cases life-saving, but also tricky. Of course, CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy was probably linked to virtue in the past. The ancient form of CBT would be in the Book of Proverbs. The wisdom found there is about changing behavior. Such as:
Do not love sleep, or else you will come to poverty;
open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread.

All cultures have sage wisdom, much of it having to do with modifying behavior. For the most part, happiness is set biologically. From a modern perspective, these are three things that can boost up that set point and provide a head start: Medication, Meditation, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  That is the S in the equation. There is more.

H = S + C + V

C represents the conditions of life. While the Buddha might have insisted that happiness is within, there are some external things that can affect our happiness, and we would do well to change them if we can.  According to the serenity prayer:
Give me the courage to change the things I can.
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
The wisdom to know the difference.

Some of the things to change if you can are exposure to noise, commuting time, amount of control over your own life decisions and stressors, body image, and the one that trumps them all:  
“the strength and number of a person’s relationships.” P. 94 
This is what Dr. Haidt says about it:
“…having an annoying office mate or roommate, or having chronic conflict with your spouse—is one of the surest ways to reduce your happiness. You never adapt to interpersonal conflict; it damages every day, even days when you don’t see the other person but ruminate about the conflict nonetheless.” P. 94

So externals matter. There are ways to increase happiness by working on the conditions of life, particularly our relationships. That is the C in the equation. The most important condition or C is love—not just love in the abstract but loving relationships with real flesh and blood human beings.

H= S + C + V

V is action. These are voluntary activities. V stands for those things we voluntarily choose to do. They include activities that seek pleasure and that build on our skills and strengths. Haidt writes:
“So V (voluntary activity) is real….You can increase your happiness if you use your strengths, particularly in the service of strengthening connections—helping friends, expressing gratitude to benefactors.” P. 97-8

If C is love then V is work.

To put it simply in our happiness formula,

H = S + C + V

Happiness equals your set point plus loving relationships plus meaningful work.

That was a sermon I already preached on June 24th the first Sunday of summer when I started this series.

Four days later on June 28th, my 25 year old son, Zachary, died unexpectedly.

How do I fit that in the formula?

Happiness equals set point plus love plus work minus tragedy.

Jonathan Haidt does say that the set point is called set point for a reason. People win the lottery and after the initial euphoria wears off they tend to drop back to their initial happiness biological set point. People experience tragedy and after a time of grief then they tend to move back up to their biological set point.

I guess we’ll see. I am not so sure about that but I’ll keep you posted.

To prepare for this series I bought a bunch of books on happiness. They have titles such as:
  • Stumbling On Happiness
  • The Pursuit of Happiness: Discovering the Pathway to Fulfillment, Well-Being, and Enduring Personal Joy
  • Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill
  • Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment
  • The Happiness Project: Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun
I think those are all probably very good books. I haven’t opened any of them.

Recall this scene in The Wizard of Oz.   The scene is near the end when Dorothy, the Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man have discovered that the Wizard is a phony. He is no wizard. He is a blowhard from Nebraska. He does know a few things, though. He proceeds to pull out of his black bag a diploma for the scarecrow, a testimonial for the tin man, and a medal of valor for the lion. He knows that they had all those virtues already. They just needed them recognized.

Then it is Dorothy’s turn. Dorothy sees the helpless look on the wizard’s face and she realizes she is in a different universe from her friends. She says,
“I don’t think there is anything in that black bag for me.”

No there isn’t. She is from a different world. A tornado ripped through her life. Her friends can watch and try to comfort her from a distance but there is nothing they or the phony wizard can give her that will help her get where she needs to go.

Like Dorothy, there is nothing in that stack of happiness books for me. At least for now. They are from a different world. Maybe they will be helpful someday.

In a day or two lives will be ripped apart along Florida’s coast and the Gulf Coast due to Hurricane Isaac. Hopefully there will be enough warning so people can find safety but no amount of forecasting and television coverage can communicate the pain of loss. It is surreal watching the before knowing there will be an after.

This life is fragile. I wonder if the only way we can protect our sanity is to pretend it isn’t.

When I selected the texts for this summer, I chose this saying for today from the Gospel of Thomas. It is a quote attributed to Jesus that sounds a lot like one from Luke 17:20-21:
When asked by the Pharisees when the empire of God would come, he answered them, “You won’t be able to observe the coming of the empire of God. People won’t be able to say, ‘Look , here it is!’ or ‘Over there!’ On the contrary, the empire of God is among you.”

I like the Thomas version more:
“His disciples said to him, ‘When will the Father’s empire come?’ ‘It won’t come by watching for it. It won’t be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s empire is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.’” --Gospel of Thomas 113

One question is whether or not Jesus is right. Is the empire of God spread out upon the earth and among us or is it something that needs to come? That is a big question. Is God going to make it better someday or is what we got what we got and you ought to find the the empire of God within it?

Scholars cannot agree on what Jesus thought about that. The texts attribute both views to him. Some say Jesus was apocalyptic, that is that God will intervene and make life better. Others say no, Jesus believed that life is what we see and what we make it to be.

So what view is likely to make us happier? Will we be happier if we believe that the empire is something that will come in the future or will we be happier if we believe that the empire of God is spread out everywhere right now?

I tend to think that people believe what they need to believe. For what it is worth, I say, believe whatever gets you through.

This came in an email to me today. I liked it so I will share it with you:
Hope is not pretending that troubles don't exist.
It is the trust that they will not last forever,
that hurts will be healed and difficulties overcome.
It is faith that a source of strength and renewal lies within
to lead us through the dark to the sunshine.

I suppose this empire thing is both/and for me. Sometimes the sadness and pain are too great to see the beauty and hope that is present, but I have trust or faith that it is there and that it will come. Maybe, in time, we will find it--in a happiness formula, maybe in someone’s black bag, a stack of books, a song, a scripture verse, a journey inward, or maybe through the eyes of a friend who can help us see it.

Amen.

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