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By Marcia Hardy in All Sorts
finding the meaning of happinessHAPPINESS
We live in a culture which has become suspicious, cynical and world weary. Sophisticated pleasures are commodities to be traded, and the anxieties and disappointments of life often blot out our capacity for joy. However, anyone who spends even a moment with young children is aware of how the capacity for happiness is present in all humans. The magic of a soap bubble; the play of sunlight; the sound and sights of the natural world; the welcoming smile for a friend, all offer delight if we can retain our sense of wonder, and see with the child’s eye.
The cover of a recent Listener (Feb 1st) caught my eye: “The Happiness Revolution: why wealth is no longer the secret to life satisfaction”. The article it refers to describes the work of celebrated UK economist, Richard Layard on ‘happiness economics’. The author quotes Layard: “I think that happiness is actually what people most care about...how happy their child is...whether they are happy in their work...their marriages. We want everybody to be happier and that to my mind is the definition of a good society.”
I wish I’d discovered Layard’s work back in 1999 when I was finishing my degree in Pastoral Theology because I was writing a paper on happiness, which I called, in good academic language: The Role of the Positive Emotions in the Pastoral Encounter. Among the positive emotions I explored: were: gladness; appreciation, compassion, hopefulness and delight. In Scripture we find many references to ‘positive emotions’ such as in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (5:22-23) ‘the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ All these emotions are included in the word love.
Although love is often talked about in Christian circles, people who have left churches often describe feeling judged, criticised, or excluded because they were ‘different’. Gender, physical or mental disabilities,
marital state, or financial position, are all been seen as barriers to acceptance. Despite Jesus’ insistence on the true meaning of neighbour, loving one another often only includes the ‘in group’. However, in ‘true community’, as we sing in Colin’s hymn ‘We are many, we are one’, we experience love in action, as people care for each other with acceptance, kindness, appreciation, honesty and compassion. We become ‘chosen’ family to each other, celebrating significant occasions, supporting each other through difficult times, offering companionship and practical help when needed. As we learn each other’s stories, we often discover hidden gifts, give and receive greater respect and may even find we love one another.
Many of us know happy people. Perhaps the happiest person I’ve ever known was Jan Bayley. I first met Jan in 1984, when she was recovering from the rare incurable illness which was finally to cause her death 15 years later. In her book, Shift Happens. The X Factor...An Unlikely Blessing (1998), Jan describes how a near-death experience, and other spiritual experiences convinced her that death is not the end of life. Everyone who met Jan was infected by her laughter, her wise, loving heart and her delight in the everyday pleasures of living. In spite of times of severe pain, her strong spirit refused to give in and she remained hopeful and accepting of her journey. In her book she wrote: ‘I am empowered in my life, for however long it is, to the fullest knowing that spirit or soul is just a blink away’.
To make sense of her experience Jan created a ‘map’ of her journey which follows a circle. Beginning at Mellow Meadow, where Lighten- ing Strikes, we move to the Desert of Despair, See-Saw Park, Befuddlement Bush and the Isle of Isolation. The turning point is reached at Crisis Canyon, which is also called Transition Trail or Valley of the Shadow. This is the place where we need to make a choice to ‘stay stuck in illusion and avoidance... to conform and make compromises ...or strike out and find what is the authentic ‘me’ ...’ A positive choice leads to Lake Recovery, Rocket Range, ( where anger gives us the energy to bring about ‘change in the world’), on to Bay of Tranquility, up Understanding Mountains for a ‘view from the top’, through the River of Consciousness, where we reach Cappuccino Cafe on the edge of Mellow Meadow where the whole process may begin again. At any part of the journey there is the possibility of a Spiritual Sunsplash.
Jan describes how her experiences have brought her a sense of a higher self in a greater universe. There is a feeling of connectedness to the whole entirety and to the surety that there is an inescapable whole. There is a oneness of which we are part...a feeling of rightness ...a wonder-filled sense of expansion from which I can see everything in a new light’.
In my ‘happiness paper’ I looked at various ways we might experience happiness. I’m sure we can all think of people who fit some of these titles:
Perhaps the fullest expression of the comic is the clown, who gently and lovingly mocks our solemnity and pretension. Retaining the playful child’s curiosity, spontaneity, and openness, the clown struggles to make sense of their environment. They teach us that the complexities of life are often absurd, that play is for all ages. They also remind us that comedy and tragedy are often intertwined; the happy face and the sad face both equally part of the whole being.
Medical researchers have found that laughter has healing effects. It improves breathing, lowers blood pressure and strengthens the immune system, relaxes muscles and increases endorphins; the natural body chemicals that make us feel happy.
The poet is often able to name our experience for us in fresh and unexpected ways.
Poets who wrestle with their emotions, and their relationship with God, enable us to put words to our own experience. They become like old friends offering comfort and wisdom because they have ‘been there’. They offer us their honesty, companionship and hope.
The visual artist expresses feeling through line and shape and colour. Sometimes, using a camera to reveal their discoveries about people and the world, the photographer produces unforgettable images speaking with a powerful prophetic voice, revealing suffering and injustice, moving us to action through compassion.
Every film maker knows how music can evoke an emotional response. When music expresses the particular emotion we’re feeling there can be a great sense of release, of being ‘heard’ beyond words. As anyone who has sung in a choir knows, the physical experience of singing is energising, and singing together helps to create a deeper sense of community.
Dance has always been an essential part of life in human society. There are many references to dancing in the scriptures, and it’s a frequent metaphor in hymns and prayers, although seldom part of mainstream western church communities.
In performance, the dancer may express emotion through movement so that the watcher is profoundly moved. However, dance need not be restricted to performance. Any movement to music often lifts emotions, even if the dancer is in a wheelchair!
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man, In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup on the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed,
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
W.B.Yeats. lines from ‘Vacillation’.