The Secret of Happiness?

I recently saw a TED Talk by Harvard Professor of Psychology David Gilbert. What he says is extremely interesting. According to Gilbert, there are two kinds of happiness: ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’.

“Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted; and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted.”

Let’s take a simple example as an illustration. Bill is an average guy who is up for promotion. He wants this promotion; he believes that the extra money and job security will make him happy. There are two possible outcomes: he will either get the promotion or he won’t; he will either get what he wanted, or he won’t. If Bill gets the promotion, he’ll get what Gilbert calls ‘natural happiness’: he’ll be happy because he got what he believed would make him happy. If Bill doesn’t get the promotion, he might still find ways to be happy with the situation. As people often do when they miss out on something, he might say and think things like, “It was for the best, this way I get to spend more time with my family,” or “Well, it was just money anyway.” This is what Gilbert calls ‘synthetic happiness’, because in a sense, Bill has had to synthesise or manufacture it. He’s had to make himself happy in spite of his circumstances.

What makes us happy?

What makes us happy?

As Gilbert points out, “In our society, we have strong belief that synthetic happiness is an inferior kind.” We tend to think that people who make themselves happy despite not getting what they wanted are really just masking their dissatisfaction or being disingenuous. But Gilbert’s big argument is that “… synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for.” In other words, happiness is something that we make, not something that we find. It’s an act of our own will, and not a circumstance which comes to us from without.

In his talk, Gilbert points to several interesting experiments which show that people can be powerfully happy even in terribly reduced circumstances. These findings are quite surprising; they’re not intuitive at all. For example, we would assume that typically, lottery winners are much happier than paraplegics. But an experiment cited by Gilbert showed that three months after winning the lottery or being confined to a wheelchair, paraplegics are just as happy as lottery winners. What happens to them has no lasting effect on the state of their happiness. What does affect their happiness is their own choice of how to deal with what has happened to them; happiness is a way of life, not a circumstance.

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Healing a Hungry World – Fasting

From the outside, fasting can seem like a pretty boring thing. People change their diet all the time; it rarely makes headlines. It’s an action that carries no more significance in itself than using a new brand of toothpaste, or changing phone carriers. Fasting, as a purely dietary practice, is quite possibly one of the most boring activities in the world.

The horrifying reality of hunger: a Somali boy being treated for malnourishment (source)

The horrifying reality of hunger: a Somali boy being treated for malnourishment (source)

But to conclude from this that fasting is boring, is rather like concluding that every movie with blazing guns and fast cars must be good. Even Sunday School children know that the Christian practice of fasting has never been a mere change of diet; the act of giving up certain kinds of food – namely the bloody kind, prepared in abattoirs and slaughterhouses – is symbolic of a much more mystical endeavour. What I want to argue here is that fasting, far from being a mere selfish and ritualistic supersition, is actually a mystical way of healing the world. St. Basil, in his fantastic Homily on Fasting, explains that in an important sense, the world is fallen precisely because we failed to fast:

“[Fasting] is as old as humanity itself; it was prescribed in Paradise. It was the first commandment that Adam received: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat.” Through the words “ye shall not eat” the law of fasting and abstinence is laid down. If Eve had fasted from the tree, we would not now be in need of this fast.Continue reading

‘Meteors on a Moonless Night’ or ‘Singles’ Awareness Day’

Today is Valentine’s Day. You know this already. If you didn’t know it when you woke up, you were surely reminded by the waterfall of love-themed Facebook posts flooding your news feed. Poring over your friends’ comments and statuses, you might have noticed that while many people take Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to celebrate romantic love, others are more sarcastic. Some people jokingly refer to it as ‘Singles’ Awareness Day’. Valentine’s Day is when the romantically involved celebrate their relationships, but it’s also the day where everyone else is awkwardly compelled to reflect on their own singleness. That reflection is often uncomfortable, because of the surprising way our culture usually talks about romantic love. It struck me recently that even though our modern culture is usually wary and stand-offish when it comes to religion, there is one thing which many secular people still talk about using very religious language: romantic love.

Obviously, we moderns don’t build literal temples to Cupid and burn roses drenched in virgin’s blood on his altars; that’s not what I mean when I say that we treat romance ‘religiously’. I only mean that the way we moderns talk about romantic love is the same way religious people talk about God or the gods or the cosmos. Take for example, this exchange from the romantic comedy called ‘Fools Rush In’ (1997), starring Matthew Perry  (Alex) and Salma Hayek (Isabel):

Alex: This morning I couldn’t decide between a hamburger and a tuna melt. But my life made perfect sense. Now I know exactly want I want, but my life makes no sense. Somewhere between tuna melt and your aunt’s tamales, life lost meaning and gained a purpose.
Isabel: What are you saying?
Alex: I am saying … This is morning I was worried I’d met the girl of my dreams at the drycleaners and not recognised her. But you – you are what I never knew I always wanted. I’m not even sure what that means, but I think it has something to do with the rest of my life!(emphasis added) Continue reading

The One whom you worship without knowing (Pt. 3)

Can we harmonise our popular films, TV shows and novels with Christ?

Can we harmonise our popular films, TV shows and novels with Christ?

There’s a touching story about a letter C.S. Lewis received from a mother with a worried child called Laurence. Laurence was worried because he felt that he loved Aslan (a fictional representation of Jesus in Lewis’ Narnia stories) more than the real Jesus. In his reply, Lewis said: “Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before.” This is the consequence of the patristic attitude to secular literature we discussed in Part 1. When someone encounters Christ in another form, the Church’s job is not to tear down and condemn that apprehension because it is ‘pagan’ or ‘secular’; it is rather to build on that link, and to declare to them the true name of ‘the One whom they worship without knowing’ (Acts 17:22). There are few people nowadays who cannot point to a favourite movie or novel; we should never underestimate the power (and the sheer, humble honesty) of acknowledging that even though a work might not be produced by the Church, it still reflects Christ Himself in its own way. And maybe, just maybe, the things which a person loves about that work, are features of Christ Himself.

A sceptical reader might be wondering how popular culture, with all its violent special effects and promiscuity, could possibly reflect anything of true spiritual worth. Granted, as the fathers advised, we’ll have to do a lot of ‘pruning’ and ‘culling’ to get at the spiritual truth in popular culture. But a basic understanding of the universal structure of narratives (especially as it’s revealed in modern movies and books) reveals some surprising things. The mythologist Joseph Campbell (in The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler (in The Writer’s Journey) are the two authors most responsible for promoting the idea of a ‘mythic structure’ or ‘monomyth’: a core structure which is present in almost all works of fiction in human history. Let me present a summarised version of this structure; as you read, think of your favourite movies or novels and see whether you can detect the same pattern in them. In brackets next to each stage, I’ve put the corresponding part of the Christian story of salvation:

  1. The Ordinary World: the hero’s homeland, where all is well. (Eden)
  2. Call to Adventure: the ordinary world is threatened by an evil force. (‘Death enters into the world by the envy of the Devil’)
  3. The Journey: the hero embarks on a quest to save what is threatened; he encounters many trials along the way. (The Incarnation)
  4. The Trial: the hero makes a terrible sacrifice or comes into extreme personal danger at the hands of the enemy. All seems lost. (The Cross)
  5. Resurrection: the hero’s sacrifice pays off. He is not killed, but ‘rises’ with new and greater power to defeat the evil force. (The Resurrection of Christ and the founding of the Church on His Blood)
  6. Return: the evil force is defeated and the hero returns to his homeland (the Second Coming and Heaven) Continue reading

Three Days in the Tomb

There’s an ancient scriptural tradition (in both Judaism and Christianity) that a three day period of darkness and suffering must be endured before salvation can come. The most obvious example is of course, Christ’s three day internment in the tomb, but there are many Old Testament examples as well: Jonah’s three days in the fish’s belly, Joshua’s spies who hid for three days while the enemy searched for them (Joshua 2).

There are some schools of Christian thought which argue that Christ’s death means that we need do absolutely nothing but accept Him in order to partake of His life. To most Orthodox-Catholics (and many Protestants also), such an idea seems radically unscriptural. Christ was very clear that He could bestow life only on those who ‘took up their Cross’ (Mt 16:25-25). To say so does not contradict the ‘grace’ of Christ’s gift – eternal life is given freely to all those who are willing to receive it. And receiving it, Christ makes very clear, is going to hurt.

Regardless of their theological positions, all true Christians know that following Christ means the death of something within them. Their pride, anger, selfish ambition and lust all have to be slain. And that process hurts. It’s easy to forget that this is what being a Christian means – Christ doesn’t beat around the bush. If we hang around Him, perhaps content to simply say a few meagre prayers every night and show up to Church on Sundays, He will quickly make us aware that He has far bigger plans for us. Plans to turn us into radiant, glorious, immortal angels of light (Wis. of Sol 3:7, Matt 13:43, Dan 12:3). But he can only give us life if we agree to die for Him. Not all of us have the strength to be physically tortured and killed for Christ, but all of us will certainly physically die, and Christian living requires us to become living sacrifices (Rom 12:1) to God.

But here is the stunning thing. The amazing, paradoxical, wondrous, world-shattering fact of it all: there is something glorious hidden in our sacrificial death. Christians who fall to the ground, broken and bleeding at the hands of kings and emperors, or those who pour out every inch of their being in service of Christ, have a stunningly consistent habit of not staying dead. They certainly appear weak, when they lie on the ground, utterly spent. But something unbelievable lies shrouded in their weakness … something deeper, older and truer than whatever dark power tears them down; something invincible.

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Pretenders for Christ – Why Christians have to ‘make believe’

I’m going to tell you a secret. A powerful secret. It will sound strange at first, but I have it on good authority (the best in fact) that if you use it well, it will change not only your life, but the lives of many of the people you meet. Are you ready? Here it is:

Learn to pretend.

That’s right. Pretend. If you learn how to pretend, then you will be able to turn iron into gold and beggars into kings. Let me explain.

Pretending is surprisingly powerful ...

In the early centuries of Christianity, few things about the Christians irritated the pagans more than the Christian habit of trying to turn sinners into saints and rabble into royalty. Christ’s command to treat the poor, weak and sinful as though they were each Christ Himself sounded positively insane to the typical, upper class pagan. For many pagans, a poor man’s poverty and sinner’s sinfulness weren’t injustices that needed to be corrected, they were simply reflections of that person’s weak, inferior nature. Treating a poor man or a prostitute with the sort of respect you would render to a king or a priest, as Christians did by Christ’s command, was like talking to a statue and expecting it to talk back. In treating paupers like princes, the Christians seemed to be playing a ‘pretending’ game. Pre-Christian societies would have generally preferred that sinners be treated like sinners, and that Christians cease their silly make believe which made them treat the foulest sinners like good, worthwhile people.

Now let’s be frank; modern popular culture is considerably more ‘pagan’ than we usually bother to appreciate. In some ways, arguably, we moderns are even crueller and more brutish than the pagans of Rome, because although we certainly enforce standards of social worth, we don’t seem to think that we do. School children know this far better than adults. In a schoolyard, the social hierarchy is fairly clear: ‘cool’, ‘popular’ and ‘pretty’ at the top, ‘loser’, ‘freak’ and ‘ugly’ down the bottom. Those at the top are worth your time, the others aren’t. Adults are no different. Apart from obvious social outcasts (criminals, the homeless, prostitutes), our appearance/success-obsessed culture strongly implies that each person’s worth depends on their financial success, their social skills (usually synonymous with their ability to sleep with whomever they choose) and their physical appearance. Those who do not possess these qualities are viewed as, in a very real sense, inferior members of the human race. And like the pagans, to justify our cruelty, we often blame these people themselves for their ‘inferiority’. That fat person would be thinner if they could stop shoving food down their gullet. That nerd would have more friends if he would just stop being so weird. That drug addict would have his life together if he would just develop some self control. There’s no point denying it – we are all pagans deep down. In the deep, dark closets of our minds, there is a part of all of us that wants to blame those less fortunate than us for their own misery, and thereby free ourselves from any responsibility to help them. This tendency is not only ‘pagan’, unfortunately. It’s also essentially human.

At all times and in all places however, Christianity goes against this tendency.
We refuse to see what the rest of the world sees. Where the world sees beggars, losers, failures and sinners, we see only Christs, and we treat them as such (or we ought to, at least). We ‘pretend’ that the poorest, most broken and tortured members of the human race are glowing with the glory of God Himself. We are pretending just as Christ pretended when He said “Blessed are the poor” (for the poor certainly don’t seem blessed.) We are playing make believe. Or at least, that’s what it looks like when worldly people see us bowing to beggars as though they were kings, and admiring the ‘ugly’ as though they were beautiful. The strange thing is, our make believe has a strange tendency to come true.

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Not those who are well, but those who are sick

Depression rates, especially among teenagers, are at ridiculously high levels today. We are surrounded by a society which is constantly giving us criteria, by which we can measure our worth. Academic success, our yearly income, our popularity, our physical attractiveness, the amount of friends we have on Facebook; there is no shortage of things which the world tells us can make us better than the person next to us. But it goes deeper than that. Society does not merely tell us that these things make us happy, it seems to insist that they give us worth and importance. The new paganism of this age is the cult of celebrity, with its pantheon of gods and goddesses of beauty, wealth and popularity who embody everything that we want to be – lucky in love, rich beyond our wildest dreams and admired by millions. They are held aloft as supreme examples of worthwhile people; people who have achieved something, who have made themselves matter. This principle doesn’t apply only on the highest levels of society either – we see the same thing happening in schoolyards: the popular and the un-popular, the cool and the uncool, the smart and the dumb. It seems that our entire culture is shot through with standards of social worth, by which some are praised and valued, and the rest ignored; the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ Leaving aside the fact that those we idolise are often themselves miserably unhappy, there is a far deeper, far more sinister untruth hidden within this approach to human worth.

 An inevitable side effect of idolising the successful, famous and beautiful is that those of us who are none of these, soon begin feel that we should be, even that we have to be, in order to be worthwhile and important. Many of the mental health issues that are epidemic among us, like anorexia, anxiety and depression, stem from the tendency we have to look up at the ‘haves’ that surround us (the beautiful, the successful and the popular) and devote our entire lives to being like them. The ultimate result is that we have an ever growing number of ‘have nots’ being pushed into the dark and dingy corners of our sphere of acceptance; people that we’d rather forget about. The terrible secret is that they must be pushed aside in order for there to be a clearly defined centre. There is no wealth without poverty, and no beauty without ugliness – there can be no ‘top’ to the social ladder unless there are people at the bottom.

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