A friend recently was speaking about a potential move she might make depending on the outcome of a couple job applications she had made. “The first job is just 20 minutes on the Metro. The second job is 40 minutes on the Metro but there’s no switching trains.” Those in the room and I nodded in satisfaction. I noticed how often our focus is on comfort of living. As my wife and I have prepared to move to Chico, CA many people have asked us what it’s like. Is it safe? Are you close to restaurants and shops? What are the annual temps? We’d tell them about the farmer’s market nearby, the easy commute to our jobs, and our closeness to major cities. Let’s face it, many of our decisions are based on these comfort of living factors. Yes, we make decisions based on interest, circumstances, and personal gifts, but we also make life decisions based on ease, salary, location, simplicity, and other factors that affect our “comforts”. All this focus on comfort of living, I believe, is essentially the human yearning for a happy life.
Aristotle believed that the purpose of life was a pursuit of happiness. In fact, living a moral and ethical life often takes into account choices that will lead to a happy life. Now the easiness of one’s daily commute and the size of one’s salary hardly determine happiness on their own. Plenty of people lack in those things but remain happy. Others have those things but struggle to find happiness. I have no doubt that God desires our happiness. – The Christian life is not just about sacrifice and suffering! In the scriptures, God offers a couple ways to happiness that may be strange for our contemporary ears.
Psalm 119 says, “Happy are those who keep [God’s] decrees.” The psalmist is literally “consumed with longing” for God’s commandments. When I learned the Ten Commandments I can tell you, I did not think those were the things that would lead me to happiness. Following orders and rules seemed more oppressive than joyful. But this is where the spiritual life finds a paradox. God’s commandments are not dictatorial, but are simply God leading us to a good and happy life. Consider discernment: For the Christian, Ignatius says, every choice we make ought to glorify God and be God’s desire. Then we can find joy in that. If I’m truly a God-follower, I want to listen to God’s desires in my discernment process. For me, time and time again, when I discover that my desires and God’s desires align, I feel quite happy and peaceful. Listening to God through prayer and awareness, and making choices with the intent of glorifying God: those are God’s decrees; those are God’s commandments. Just like the psalmist, we long for God’s ways because they ultimately lead us to happiness.
In the Gospel, Jesus offers another strange path to happiness in the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Once again the spiritual life finds another paradox. Jesus turns our assumed path to happiness—riches, power, honour—on its head. The word “blessed” used in some translations literally means “happy”. That happiness comes from being meek and humble, pure and peaceful, hungry and thirsty, and mourning and being persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
In the film Jobs, Steve Jobs is portrayed as power-hungry, self-righteous, angry, and a perfectionist. It’s clear that happiness is not his. All the paths that he might expect to bring joy do not. The Pursuit of Happiness, a website devoted to the science of happiness, offers some habits of happy people that might as well have come from Jesus’ sermon:
- Express your heart and feelings (be vulnerable) to those with whom you have relationships
- Cultivate kindness and caring by volunteering or reaching out to someone
- Exercise regularly
- Discover meaning by being engaged in a regular spiritual and religious practice
- Discover your strengths and virtues—and use them!
- Treasure gratitude, mindfulness, and hope
It’s natural to yearn for a happy life, and having a relationship with God offers a way to that. A happy life is not absent of suffering or difficulty, but a happy life offers you the tools to keep moving forward, to flourish as a beloved child of God. We flourish by following God’s commands—that is, God’s desires for us. We flourish by letting go of our agendas and power trips, instead being humble, gentle, loving, self-aware, and grateful. Happiness is ours, and God is waiting for us to take the less trodden path of listening to God’s desires and living our lives humbly. That is true happiness.
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Music by Kevin MacLeod