Happiness—real, enduring, life-sustaining happiness— rest on way of being, a life stance, a deeply held philosophy—not one that is necessarily articulate—that connects people to both the future and the past and cultivates in them a sense of gratitude for what they have inherited and a sense of responsibility to future generations.
As researchers Emmons and McCullough note, “Grateful individuals place less importance on material goods; they are less likely to judge their own and others’ success in terms of possessions accumulated; they are less envious of wealthy persons; and are more likely to share their possessions with others relative to less grateful persons.” This is what I mean by spirituality, and it is a necessary component of a happy life.
I am thinking of happiness in the older, more profound sense of the word. Literature professor Stanislaw Baranczak points out that in Slavic languages the word is restricted to “rare states of profound bliss, or total satisfaction with serious things such as love, family, the meaning of life, and so on.”
This understanding of happiness helps explain Maxim Gorky‘s response to his visit to America in the early part of the 20th century, when friends took him to Coney Island. He saw the rides, all the concessions, games, and shows. At the end of the day his friends asked him how he liked it. He said, “What a sad people you must be.” Americans were working so hard at finding happiness in things not serious. It was as if amusement were all there was to happiness. While fun may well provide happiness, fun isn’t all there is to happiness, nor is it the major part of it.
Soul-sustaining happiness involves developing habits and attitudes that foster ethical relationships. Joy and happiness result from living properly and celebrating the human condition. My religious tradition calls this ethical culture, which encourages paying attention to what you are doing and feeling and entails self-scrutiny and education, not in a self-centered or hedonistic way but in the context of good relations. Such an approach helps lift you over the inevitable setbacks, accidents, illnesses, and losses.
When you are not in harmony with others, when you separate yourself from the world around you, when you use others strictly for your own purposes, when you disregard and disrespect others, when you treat others unjustly, when you think that you are more—or less—than others, then you become soul sick. The happy person is the humane person. An ethical life-—a good life—fosters human flourishing and leads to deep satisfaction. Living ethically, feeling connected to and responsible for something larger than yourself, and acting on this in a spirit of generosity and with a sense of appreciation is to practice the lost art of happiness.
Here is a parable I wrote:
“I have a map that leads to the world’s great treasure,” someone once said.
The neighbor saw the map and killed the owner. He then took the map, read it carefully, and set out to find the treasure. Just as had been promised, he found diamonds and gold. The person sat upon the glittering treasure, at first full of happiness. But when he died years later, instead he was full of sorrow and regret.
“I have a map that leads to the world’s great treasure,” someone once said to her neighbor.
“How much do you want for it?” the neighbor asked.
“It is yours without charge,” she said. “All I request is that you take me along with you.”
The neighbor grabbed the map and ran away as fast as she could Just as had been promised. She rested now and admired the glittering jewels. She sat upon the glittering treasure at first full of happiness. But when she died years later, she, too, was full of sorrow and regret.
“I have a map that leads you to the world’s great treasure,” someone said to his neighbor.
“What do I have to do to see this map?” the neighbor asked.
“Take me along with you,” the owner said.
So the neighbor did. They studied the map together, discussing which way to go and what they would need along the way. They often disagreed about the direction and they argued about the provisions to bring. Finally, they began their journey.
Along the way, the neighbors found clean water and food. They repaired their clothes, using needles from evergreens. They built shelters and found fuel to keep warm. One knew stars, so they could travel from place to place; another knew many of the plants that grew, so they could reap the bounty of the earth. Sometimes they sang. One liked to dance. Finally they grew tired of wandering and settled down. Now they tended a garden together and shared a house.
“This is delicious,” one said, spicing and salting the food.
“This is beautiful,” the other said, admiring the flowers on their table.
Eventually the map yellowed and became fragile from many folds. It grew brittle and the markings faded until they were barely visible. First one died and there was much sorrow. Then the other died.
Neither had regrets in never having reached the world’s greatest treasure.