A few months ago, Mara had a post titled The Work I Did To Be Happy. It’s one of my favorite posts on a topic I find most interesting. It just so happened that when Mara was writing that post, that same week I was asked to speak in church on the topic of choosing happiness. My comments are very similar to Mara’s, but with a more religious take due to the setting. I hope you find these thoughts helpful to you on your own journey in understanding happiness, whatever religious connections you may or may not have. The pictures are from a beautiful sunset this week after a terribly rainy Brooklyn day. Enjoy.
More important than the words I will speak today, if I’m successful, will be the love and confidence you feel from me, and more significantly, through me from God. The most important prayer I offer as I prepare is not that I will be inspired (even though I certainly pray for that), but that you will be…that each of you will see through the weakness of my words to the truths that I am trying to convey, truths that mean the world to me….
I’m one of those strange people that loves teaching and public speaking. So it is truly a delight to be here today. I get even more excited when I’m asked to speak on a topic that has occupied my mind for the greater part of my life, especially the last 5 years or so – and that is the topic of Happiness. It is a topic which anyone that has sat with me for 15 minutes has discovered that I will find a way to bring it up. To me, understanding this is one of the secrets of life (or at least a life well lived), and it greatly informs my understanding of and faith in God and my relationship to Him. In short – it affects every relationship I have, and it does so for the better. Though I wish I had an hour (or even two), the next 20 minutes will have to do.
What Makes Us Happy?
To accomplish anything meaningful, we’ll need to begin by thinking about some common beliefs about happiness…..what makes us happy, what thwarts our happiness, etc. I want you to think, for a moment, about what makes you happy. What is sure to bring a smile to your face and joy to your soul? It can be simple or deep…
I’ll tell you some of mine… Happiness for me? My wife, my family, music (especially playing it myself), deep and meaningful conversations, teaching, and really good Mexican food…especially if it was made by me. You should see me after I make fresh tomatillo and avocado salsa and drizzle it on homemade pork tacos… I enter a state of pure bliss and nirvana.
If you asked the question of yourself, I wouldn’t be surprised if in some way or another many (but not all) of your answers fell into one of these categories:
– Wealth and Possessions
– Children – at least when they are well behaved 🙂
– Leisure activities
In this sense, it might be fair to state that for many of us, a good portion of our happiness is strongly tied to temporal things and to circumstance. Besides, we might say, who wouldn’t be unhappy, or at least have a lesser degree of happiness, if one or more of these things were missing? Shouldn’t there be less happiness and contentment and peace to be found in the middle of serious illness, or at the loss of a marriage or the behavior of a wayward child? Should we expect that meaningful and deep happiness can be found if you cannot have children at all, or if one remains single and without a spouse, or if they’re married with a difficult spouse? What if employment is lost or unfavorable, and money is tight or non-existent?
Is there still room for a sense of well being and happiness even when all circumstances and relationships fail? The Gospel seems to be telling us the answer to that question…perhaps you will hear it in this promise Christ gave to his disciples in John 14:27 – “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you. Not as the world giveth give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
What do you think He means when He says “Not as the world giveth give I unto you”? How would the world give peace and happiness anyway? It seems to me that the messaging of the world bases happiness almost entirely in circumstance. It is mostly about accumulating possessions, that if I make this much amount of money or have this house or that job or retire or have that car I’ll be happy…..or if I could look like that, or be young again, or whatever else.
Perhaps He’s trying to tell us that His Peace and Happiness, His Joy can come to us regardless of circumstance. In fact, one thing I have found to be absolutely true, is that the miracle of faith in God is not that He changes the circumstances of your life, but that he changes you and your heart.
I submit to you that true Happiness, the deepest and most satisfying kind, is not tied to circumstance at all. In fact, it has been in my most difficult moments of life, when circumstances seemed to fail me most, that I found some of the greatest peace and the deepest well being.
This is the very challenge given to us by Deiter Uchtdorf in one of my favorite sermons on this subject, “Of Regrets and Resolutions”. He says:
So often we get caught up in the illusion that there is something just beyond our reach that would bring us happiness: a better family situation, a better financial situation, or the end of a challenging trial.
The older we get, the more we look back and realize that external circumstances don’t really matter or determine our happiness.
We do matter. We determine our happiness.
You and I are ultimately in charge of our own happiness
Let us resolve to be happy, regardless of our circumstances.
Those are some pretty bold statements. It reminds me of another bold statement offered by a prophet named Lehi. In the very same sermon that Lehi is teaching about the opposition that is found in life and the importance of agency and choice (which I’ll get to later), he offers this profound statement: “Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy.” Imagine that, we are designed to experience joy, even while subjected to this fallen state.
So how is this happiness obtained then? How does one experience happiness when circumstance is anything but what you want?
The Power of Choice
Well, one thing I already hinted at in the example above is that we must first understand the power of personal choice.
Reflecting on the connection between choice and happiness has led spiritual and philosophical teachers over the centuries to offer some of these bits of wisdom to enlighten us:
“Where is the good? In the will. Where is the evil? In the will. Where is neither of them (good or evil)? In those things that are independent of the will (circumstance).” – Epictetus
“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.” – Epictetus
“Outward things cannot touch the soul, not in the least degree; nor have they admission to the soul, nor can they turn or move the soul; but the soul turns and moves itself alone.” – Marcus Aurelius
“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it.” – Eckhart Tolle
This too could be the meaning of Lehi’s words when he says “There is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon….Wherefore the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself….and because they have been redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil, to act for themselves and not to be acted upon…. Men are free to choose liberty and eternal life through the great Mediator of all men [Jesus Christ]…and the will of his Holy Spirit, or to choose captivity and death according to the will of the flesh and the evil that is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate you.” (2 Nephi 2:14-29)
Could one aspect of learning to act and not be acted upon be summed up in the way an individual chooses to view their circumstances in life? They can either view themselves as subject to circumstances (being acted upon), or believe they can act independent of them (act for themselves). Reflecting on the difference between these two views and their connection to liberty and captivity can be quite rewarding and offer profound insights on life.
He ends his teachings to his children by saying “I have chosen the good part, and I have no other object save it be the everlasting welfare of your souls.” This was his last sermon before his death, and seemingly the thing he thought most important to teach was the power of choice and its impact on the way you experience any circumstance, and whether or not you experience the liberty and joy offered by God.
Choosing Between “Good” and “Evil”
Words are a tricky thing, they do not mean the same thing to all people. Some will read about the importance of choosing between good and evil and conjure up all sorts of ideas, perhaps many of them correct. I don’t claim to have the most correct understanding…but it has helped me to understand that when we look at the words Christ used when he taught and what the listener at that time period would have understood according to language and culture, that it is a little bit different than what we generally understand when we hear the words good and evil.
For Christ, most often the words we now read as good and evil would have been understood in a much softer context of ripe and unripe. The difference between sweet tasting fruit and bitter. The subtle difference between something that brings forth and sustains life, and that which cannot.
Perhaps then, when we are choosing between good and evil, it is not on the dramatic scale that this happens, but the subtle. Isn’t this what Christ taught in the Sermon on the Mount? It isn’t just about killing or not killing….it is about not being angry with your brother. It isn’t just about adultery or no adultery in marriage, it is about virtuous intent and thoughts. It isn’t just about praying and fasting and alms giving or failing to do those things….it is making sure that your prayers and fasts and charitable givings are done absent of pride or the desire for recognition, and with an eye single to God.
Christ was all about the subtle differences that resulted in developing the “kingdom of God which is within you”. And He was most anxious about teaching people how to “at-one” with God so that God could dwell in them and be with them always. This kind of unity was a repeating theme in His last sermon to His disciples in John 14 through 17.
What does understanding the subtle level on which our most important choices happen have to do with choosing happiness independent of circumstance? Everything. I want to spend my remaining time talking about how we can use our power of agency to deliberately choose virtue as our response to any circumstance, and the promises directed to us as we learn to do this.
Choosing Virtues as the Path to Happiness
Two great quotes from other religions/philosophers to illustrate this principle and get us started:
“The wise man takes great care to guard his thoughts. Thoughts are very subtle, very difficult to perceive and can slip out of control at the tiniest opportunity. A well-guarded mind brings happiness. We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves. To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.” – Buddha
“Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with Virtue.” – Aristotle
I love those two statements, and think they are full of wisdom…they are a sermon all on their own, and I have felt their power. Both connect the experience of happiness with the expression and cultivation of inner Virtue and the careful choosing and expression of thoughts. If I were to add any clarification, I would say that as we learn to respond to the circumstance of life with Virtue (Love, Kindness, Faith, Forgiveness) instead of our natural response (anger, fear, doubt, bitterness), we begin to develop those characteristics which are most consistent with God’s character, and consequently we experience His Peace, His Happiness.
Let’s see what James and Peter and Paul have to say about this.
James 1:2-4 – “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations;” – now that’s already a strange statement to make….why on earth should falling into afflictions and temptations be a cause for joy?… “Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.” Ah, so we begin to get to the heart of it. James views all things in life as opportunities to develop virtue….especially trials. And what is his opinion of what the development of virtues, in this case patience, will do to you? “But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” Choosing to allow patience to work and develop in you helps you develop one attribute which God holds in perfection, and the development of that virtue is linked to your wholeness/completeness which you obtain in and through God. This is the very essence of at-one-ment.
The way you respond to circumstance either encourages or discourages the wholeness that God is trying to fill you with. His wholeness and peace come by aligning yourself with virtues consistent with His character and being (see also this post). This is what He means by “my peace I give unto you, not as the world giveth give I unto you.” His peace comes not by circumstance, but by pursuing virtues that allow His peace to flow into you naturally, because in the moment you embody that virtue you share His heart and His mind.
2 Peter 1:1-8 – Peter begins by recognizing that God has “called us to glory and virtue” and says that it is by this call that we are given “exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature”. I believe one of the ways we become partakers of the divine nature is by learning how to respond to all circumstances of life in a way that is consistent with the virtues God is a perfect embodiment of. This causes us to experience His Peace, His Joy, and His Happiness in this life, no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in. Peter seems to suggest the same when he gives a list of virtues to develop, that we should pursue in all diligence: “And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.” And then this great promise “For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I could not possibly agree more.
1 Corinthians 13:1-8 – “…Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
The promise at the end there is very bold. Love Never Fails. But in what way does it never fail? Is this a promise that perfect love will always rescue the wayward child, bring back a cheating spouse, change a dismissive and rude boss/co-worker, or mend a broken relationship with a dysfunctional parent? Is this scripture promising that Love will have any effect at all on circumstances or the behaviors of others? It might make positive change more likely, but it certainly isn’t a guarantee. That much is evident in Christ’s life, where He perfectly embodied charity, yet still met many people who refused to be changed by His love.
So in what way does love never fail? My answer to you is that Love never fails the POSSESSOR of it. Learning to offer selfless Love, even to those who offend you, can fill you with a Joy and Peace consistent with that Love, even though the circumstances you face don’t change at all. I have experienced that Joy for myself, and there are few things like it.
Pursing Virtue For The Sake Of The Virtue Alone
My challenge to you? Learn to pursue Virtues as your response, no matter what your circumstance. This is the only way for happiness to be something other than a glossy veneer. In fact, when I say that you have the power to choose happiness, it’s not like you just say to yourself “I’m going to be happy!” when something terrible happens. If that’s all you do, it may only amount to a smile that masks a heap of negative thoughts bubbling inside. So when I say that you can choose happiness, what you are actually doing is choosing the virtue of Kindness in the face of criticism, you are choosing Forgiveness in the face of betrayal, Service and Selflessness in the face of self-pity, you are choosing Patience and Love in the face of a disobedient child, you are choosing Gratitude and Love for those you still have when you face the loss of someone dear to you, you choose Faith and Hope instead of fear and worry in the face of life threatening illness. In none of those examples did you choose happiness…and yet happiness/well-being/calm/peace is the result of these consistently applied virtues.
This deserves a little bit of elaboration…when you choose to embody these virtues as your response to all things in life, you must do so for the sake of the virtue alone and nothing else (again, this is what the Sermon on the Mount is all about). If you choose kindness or love or forgiveness now, so that later you can hang it over someone’s head as an example of how your actions have been better than theirs and that they OWE you…well then you didn’t actually choose those virtues at all – you chose vengeance, pride, and the right to say “I’m better than you.” This will not do. You must choose the Virtue for Virtue’s sake.
I hope you will each pursue those Virtues that will help you truly know God, which knowledge will come in great part because you are becoming like Him (1 John 3:1-3). If there is any true happiness that I have discovered in this life, it has not come because of circumstance, but because of how I responded to circumstance. It has come when I have discovered what it means to choose His ways (Love, Kindness, Forgiveness, Gratitude, Hope, etc.) and not my own. Doing so connects you with Heaven in ways I haven’t experienced otherwise. It’s as if choosing those virtues causes you to vibrate at the same frequency as those Celestial spheres, and the Joy that is so natural there becomes your own (i.e. – the Kingdom of God truly is within you). It seems to me that the deep happiness we so desperately seek truly cannot be found in circumstances or “as the world giveth”, but comes only from within as we learn to align with Above.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on how your religious or spiritual beliefs influence your approach to Happiness. Have a wonderful Sunday!
Update: Last night I came across a quote from Leo Tolstoy in “War and Peace” that was particularly relevant connecting the virtue of Love to Joy:
“Yes, love, …but not the love that loves for something, to gain something, or because of something, but that love that I felt for the first time, when dying, I saw my enemy and yet loved him. I knew that feeling of love which is the essence of the soul, for which no object is needed. And I know that blissful feeling now too. To love one’s neighbours; to love one’s enemies. To love everything – to Love God in all His manifestations. Some one dear to one can be loved with human love; but an enemy can only be loved with divine love. And that was why I felt such joy when I felt that I loved that man. What happened to him? Is he alive? …Loving with human love, one may pass from love to hatred; but divine love cannot change. Nothing, not even death, can shatter it. It is the very nature of the soul.” ― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace