A young woman sitting outdoor with her eyes closed and a joyful look on her face

Happiness and Joy

Happiness and Joy

Did you feel as happy in 2020 as you did in 2018? If your answer is no, you were not alone. A study found that just 14% of American adults said they were very happy in 2020, down from 31% who said the same in 2018. In fact, Americans are the unhappiest they’ve been in nearly 50 years. 

Is it even possible to be happy given the current crises we are facing? Perhaps being happy is an unrealistic expectation, one that we would be wiser to relinquish until our world improves. The fields of psychology and spirituality have studied happiness for centuries and they might suggest otherwise.

Part I: Happiness and Psychology

Let’s start with psychology. Psychologists have not reached a consensus on what leads to happiness. One school says it results from striving for goals and meeting one’s basic needs. They might hold that we can be happy in the midst of the crises we face today as long as we do not forget to focus on our goals and needs.

Another school says our happiness is influenced by genes and personality traits and does not change much over time. These psychologists, too, might advise that we can be happy in the current circumstances, because it is less dependent upon these than we might be inclined to think.

Yet another school contends that happiness can be improved by participating in activities that are engaging and require effort. They, too, would probably advise that even in the current circumstances, we can find happiness.

Part II: Happiness and Spirituality

What do spiritual writers say? They have long held that happiness is not the same as joy, and that the two need to be distinguished. The latter is more important than the former. The difference is that happiness depends on external circumstances while joy depends upon our internal disposition.

The disadvantage of focusing on happiness is that we cannot control external circumstances, so it fluctuates with our changing circumstances. We are happy when things go our way, unhappy when they do not.  

But joy is different. The advantage of focusing on joy is that we can control our internal dispositions. Poet William Ernest Henley wrote his famous poem Invictus containing the lines,

“I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul. . . .
 . . . My head is bloody, but unbowed. . . .
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”

He wrote these words after suffering years of a painful tuberculosis infection of his bones. These words also kept hope alive for the South African leader, Nelson Mandela, and his fellow prisoners during their 27 years of imprisonment. Near the end of his imprisonment, Mandela also recovered “bloody but unbowed” after 4 months of treatment for, coincidentally, the same microbe that ravaged Hensley. The external circumstances of their poor health and their imprisonment did not inhibit their joy. They had developed interior resources that enabled them to overcome seemingly insurmountable external difficulties. 

Part III: Assumptions about Human Nature

So, if it is true that we are the masters of our fate and the captains of our soul, that external circumstances need not control us, that we can experience abiding joy with the proper interior disposition, where does one begin? Here is one possibility.

One of our most fundamental interior dispositions is the set of assumptions we make about the intrinsic nature of ourselves, others, and the world around us. Do we assume these are mostly good or mostly evil? I believe that our answer to that question has immeasurable consequences for whether we experience joy in our lives. Why?

Our assumptions will determine our perceptions.  We will see what we are looking for, hear what we are listening for, and discover what we are searching for. If we assume people are mostly good, we will see the good (and perhaps only the good.) If we assume they are mostly evil, we will see the evil (and perhaps only the evil.) 

Undoubtedly, our assumptions are rooted in a combination of nature and nurture unique to each of us. Genetic predisposition and personal history combine to create a set of assumptions that lean one way or the other. That is not to say they are fixed for the rest of our lives. We can use our personal freedom to identify and modify them. 

Religion may be one of the influences in our own personal history. Within Christianity, there are two fundamentally different views of the intrinsic nature of the human person. The classic Protestant view sees the person as sinner. The classic Catholic view sees the person as basically good, though in need of redemption. 

Is there a “true” way to see? Both sides contend theirs is. Those who see mostly good accuse the other side of being pessimistic and blind. Those who see mostly evil accuse the other side of being optimistic and naive. Reasonable persons on both sides might agree that the truth is somewhere in the middle. That view could be described as realistic. But that may not solve the conflict either, as persons on both sides may hold that theirs alone is the realistic view.

V.  Assumptions that Create Joy

The question of which side is right may not be as important as the question, which view creates the most authentic joy? Seeing mostly good creates more joy than seeing mostly evil. The former leads to joy (psychologists in the school of positive psychology use the terms flow, thrive and flourish), while the latter can lead to despair.

An ancient story carries the wisdom that our assumptions about people inevitably influence how we interact with others.

A man decided it was time to leave his village and search for a new home. As he approached the next village, he told a man standing at the gate that he was looking for a village where the people were warm and friendly. The man at the gate asked what kind of people lived in his last village. The traveler said they were nothing of the kind, only mean and selfish. The man at the gate said they were the same in his village and that the visitor would not be happy there. The traveler walked on.

A second traveler approached the man at the gate and told him he, too, was leaving his old village and looking for one where the people were warm and friendly. The man at the gate responded with the same question. When he asked the traveler about the kind of people who lived in his last village, the traveler broke down in tears. He said it pained him to leave them. They were always kind and generous to him, and he already missed them terribly. The man at the gate stepped forward, embraced the traveler, and said, welcome. You have found your new home! The people in my village are the same. 

When we see ourselves, others and the world around us as basically good, our spirits are uplifted by the good we see. We are inspired and perhaps even personally supported by the generous actions of others. This experience often leads to a feeling of gratitude. This virtue has long been extolled in our spiritual traditions. 

- Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, for his steadfast love endures forever (Psalms 136).
- If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough (Meister Eckhart, 14th century theologian & mystic). 

We may also find that the good we see in the actions of others inspires hope in us. This virtue has also been extolled throughout our spiritual traditions. Hope is confident expectation in what we cannot see. Hope is trusting that God is always present and will provide what we need however discouraging the present circumstances in which we might find ourselves may be. Our hope is bolstered when we witness the love of God expressed in the goodness of others. 

In sum, assume that people are basically good, experience the joy of witnessing generosity in others, experience the gratitude and hope that often follow. 

Part VI. Sharing the Joy

Our missionaries assume all people are children of God and, as such, inherently good. They look for the good in others and are privileged to witness it in their many forms of ministry. Witnessing the generosity of others brings them a profound sense of joy. This joy reminds them that their hope in God will not leave them disappointed.

I close with a story from the ministerial trenches in West Virginia where Fr. Thien Duc Nguyen, SVD serves as the pastor of St. Thomas Parish, in Gassaway. 

The husband of a woman who is very poor died. They are not Catholic, but Fr. Thien celebrated his funeral at the local funeral home. The widow was very concerned because she did not have enough money to cover the expenses for the service. Fr. Thien reassured her and told her not to worry. He told her if she needed any help, St. Thomas parish would assist her.

Three weeks later, there was a knock at the door of the rectory. Fr. Thien opened the door only to discover the widow standing there. She thanked him again for the funeral service for her husband. She went on to say she had received money from his life insurance policy and had paid off all her bills.

She said that she knew what it is like to be poor. Now she wanted to help some of the people who were struggling just like her. Fr. Thien asked if she had put money aside for herself in a savings account. She said no, she had not. She was not concerned about herself. She had been blessed. It was time to share her blessing with others who were in need. And she wanted to do it now! With that, she presented Fr. Thien with a check for $2,000, insisted that he use it for the poor and not for the parish, turned around, and left.

Fr. Thien thought to himself, she is so poor, that she will probably be at our food pantry next month. That did not seem to matter to her. Her first priority was to help others who were in need. She would worry about her own needs later. The gospel story of the widow’s mite had been brought to life right here in West Virginia. 

If you would like to learn more about the joy our missionaries experience in witnessing the generosity of others, please click here.

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