Hangovers, debts may last longer than holiday happiness

December 1, 2010

(RNS)`Tis the season ... for Black Friday, Cyber Monday, consumer
spending reports, and large doses of Christmas spirits -- often of the
alcoholic, not good-cheer variety.

But before you rush off to the mall or join the office holiday
party, some A-list religious leaders want you to know one thing: The
happiness derived from tearing open a coveted gift or downing a tasty
beverage will fade before the final stanza of "Auld Lang Syne."

And all you'll be left with in the New Year is an empty wallet and a
hangover.

In fact, the consumer-driven culture whose engine revs this time of
year is likely "the most efficient system yet devised for the
manufacture and distribution of un-happiness," says Lord Jonathan Sacks,
Britain's chief rabbi.

"The consumer society is constantly tempting us to spend money we
don't have, to buy things we don't need, for the sake of a happiness
that won't last," warns Sacks.

So, if iPods and eggnog won't do the trick, what will make us happy?

Sacks was one of four prominent religious leaders invited by Emory
University in Atlanta earlier this year to answer that eternal question.
"The Pursuit of Happiness Conference," organized by Emory's Center for
the Study of Law and Religion, also included the Dalai Lama, Episcopal
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a
noted Muslim scholar at George Washington University.

As might be expected, the four religious leaders disagreed about how
to define happiness. Buddhism, after all, doesn't even posit an
all-controlling God who guides the way to a presumably blissful
afterlife.

But they concurred in warning that the heedless pursuit of pleasure
leads down a spiritual dead end.

In a nutshell, their common advice might be dubbed the "happiness
paradox": the more you give, the happier you get. In that way, Sacks
said, spiritual happiness is the "greatest source of renewable energy we
have."

"If I have a certain amount of money and I give some to you, I have
less," Sacks said. "But if I have a certain amount of friendship or love
or trust and I give it to you, I don't have less, I have more."

There are two basic levels of happiness, the Dalai Lama said: mental
and physical. In recent centuries, humans have become expert at
satisfying our physical desires, but our spiritual skills have not kept
pace, he said.

"A rich family, their physical comforts reach a very high standard,"
said the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader. "But that is no guarantee of
reaching the same standards in peace of mind." Instead, material wealth
often leads to "more worry, more anxiety, perhaps more jealousy and more
fear."

The Dalai Lama, forced from his Tibetan homeland by Chinese forces
in 1959, held himself up as an example of how lasting happiness can be
found -- even in spite of hardship -- by cultivating inner resources
such as compassion and equanimity.

Jefferts Schori agreed that "we find much greater happiness when we
are not in the center of things." The first woman in the nearly 400-year
history of Anglicanism to lead a national church, Jefferts Schori
presides over one of the wealthiest denominations in the U.S. But while
worldly goods are an element of happiness, the presiding bishop warned
against the temptation to put Mammon before God.

"If we equate happiness solely with external or material goods, we
lapse into hedonism, and in a biblical sense, commit idolatry," she
said. "In the Christian understanding, locating human happiness in
anything which does not include and acknowledge the divine represents
major error."

Nasr, a prominent Islamic philosopher, said Muslims believe in a
"hierarchy of happiness," from the quenching satisfaction of a cool
glass of water on a hot day, to the spiritual high of realizing a divine
truth.

All too often, consumer culture fools people into trading the higher
forms of pleasure for the lower, said the Iranian-born intellectual. But
the fact that physical happiness doesn't last is proof that our souls
are made to reach for loftier goals, Nasr said.

In fact, he said, the highest wisdom may be to stop desiring
anything at all. "Once it was asked of a great Sufi master: What do you
want?," Nasr recalled. "I want not to want," the master replied.

Sacks agreed that sometimes the best way to find happiness is to
stop pursuing it. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses says living in the
Promised Land will prove a more difficult test of faith for the Jews
than any trial faced during 40 years of wandering the desert.

"The difficult part is affluence, because that's when you forget
where you came from, and you forget why you are here," the rabbi said.
`Affluence makes you forget to give thanks, and when a society forgets
to give thanks it loses the art of happiness."