Spiritual happiness better than holiday cheer
Daniel Burke, Religion News Service
December 07, 2010

Spiritual happiness better than holiday cheer

Spiritual happiness better than holiday cheer
Daniel Burke, Religion News Service
December 07, 2010

’Tis the season … for

Black Friday, Cyber Monday, consumer spending reports, and large doses of

Christmas spirits — often of the alcoholic, not good-cheer variety.

But before you rush off to

the mall or join the office holiday party, some A-list religious leaders want

you to know one thing: The happiness derived from tearing open a coveted gift

or downing a tasty beverage will fade before the final stanza of “Auld Lang


And all you’ll be left with

in the New Year is an empty wallet and a hangover.

In fact, the consumer-driven

culture whose engine revs this time of year is likely “the most efficient

system yet devised for the manufacture and distribution of un-happiness,” says

Lord Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi.

“The consumer society is

constantly tempting us to spend money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t

need, for the sake of a happiness that won’t last,” warns Sacks.

So, if iPods and eggnog won’t

do the trick, what will make us happy?

Sacks was one of four

prominent religious leaders invited by Emory University in Atlanta earlier this

year to answer that eternal question. “The Pursuit of Happiness Conference,”

organized by Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, also included

the Dalai Lama, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, and

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a

noted Muslim scholar at

George Washington University.

As might be expected, the

four religious leaders disagreed about how to define happiness. Buddhism, after

all, doesn’t even posit an all-controlling God who guides the way to a

presumably blissful afterlife.

But they concurred in

warning that the heedless pursuit of pleasure leads down a spiritual dead end.

In a nutshell, their common

advice might be dubbed the “happiness paradox”: the more you give, the happier

you get. In that way, Sacks said, spiritual happiness is the “greatest source

of renewable energy we have.”

“If I have a certain amount

of money and I give some to you, I have less,” Sacks said.

“But if I have a

certain amount of friendship or love or trust and I give it to you, I don’t

have less, I have more.”

There are two basic levels

of happiness, the Dalai Lama said: mental and physical. In recent centuries,

humans have become expert at satisfying our physical desires, but our spiritual

skills have not kept pace, he said.

“A rich family, their

physical comforts reach a very high standard,” said the exiled Tibetan Buddhist

leader. “But that is no guarantee of reaching the same standards in peace of

mind.” Instead, material wealth often leads to “more worry, more anxiety,

perhaps more jealousy and more fear.”

The Dalai Lama, forced from

his Tibetan homeland by Chinese forces in 1959, held himself up as an example

of how lasting happiness can be found — even in spite of hardship — by

cultivating inner resources such as compassion and equanimity.

Jefferts Schori agreed that “we

find much greater happiness when we are not in the center of things.” The first

woman in the nearly 400-year history of Anglicanism to lead a national church,

Jefferts Schori presides over one of the wealthiest denominations in the U.S.

But while worldly goods are an element of happiness, the presiding bishop


against the temptation to

put Mammon before God.

“If we equate happiness

solely with external or material goods, we lapse into hedonism, and in a

biblical sense, commit idolatry,” she said. “In the Christian understanding,

locating human happiness in anything which does not include and acknowledge the

divine represents major error.”

Nasr, a prominent Islamic

philosopher, said Muslims believe in a “hierarchy of happiness,” from the

quenching satisfaction of a cool glass of water on a hot day, to the spiritual

high of realizing a divine truth.

All too often, consumer

culture fools people into trading the higher forms of pleasure for the lower,

said the Iranian-born intellectual. But the fact that physical happiness doesn’t

last is proof that our souls are made to reach for loftier goals, Nasr said.

In fact, he said, the

highest wisdom may be to stop desiring anything at all. “Once it was asked of a

great Sufi master: What do you want?,” Nasr recalled. “I want not to want,” the

master replied.

Sacks agreed that sometimes

the best way to find happiness is to stop pursuing it. In the Book of

Deuteronomy, Moses says living in the Promised Land will prove a more difficult

test of faith for the Jews than any trial faced during 40 years of wandering

the desert.

“The difficult part is

affluence, because that’s when you forget where you came from, and you forget

why you are here,” the rabbi said. “Affluence makes you forget to give thanks,

and when a society forgets to give thanks it loses the art of happiness.”