Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Happiness and Haiti, funerals and politics, Genesis and church chatter come together in unexpected ways.

A couple of years ago, a journalist published a book that lived on my daughter’s shelf until she gave it to me, knowing I was intrigued by the title, The Geography of Bliss. The book is a funny and illuminating read.

The author traveled to a dozen countries to learn why those who live there are so happy--or not. The countries were not picked at random. He chose his destinations after visiting the World Happiness Database (I’m not making this up) in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

The WHD compiles and compares studies from social scientists across the world, who examine the age-old mystery of what makes for happy contented lives. Countries even receive scores on a 1-10 scale, based on extensive surveying.

In case you’re wondering, the United States is not among the 20 happiest places on Earth. It ranks below places like Costa Rica, Malta, Malaysia, Bhutan and Iceland, way below Iceland.

No surprise there. During my lifetime, Americans have become many times richer, but the divorce rate has tripled, violent crime has quadrupled, the prison population quintupled and mental health disorders like anxiety and depression are much more common, not merely more commonly diagnosed.

This leads to the obvious conclusion that money matters less we imagine. After having enough to satisfy basic human needs, happiness plateaus and having more money makes little difference.

What matters are social and family connections, belonging to a people, a history and a culture that transcends oneself. Trusting others is essential, your neighbors and fellow citizens. Envy is totally toxic, as are unrealistic expectations for personal success and accomplishment.

Happy places allow people to try and fail without shame, providing them freedom to reinvent themselves. They have space for idleness beyond the daily rush. They also inspire an expansive consciousness, the awareness that life is bigger than me and my personal needs.

Summing up his view--and much of this happy, thoughtful book, a public official in the tiny nation of Bhutan said, “Happiness is 100% relational.”

The Bible connects here. Once we move beyond silly arguments about whether the creation stories of Genesis are literal history, the stories speak deep truth about human nature and how we connect with God.

We are created from and for each other, to complete each other. We are fashioned for harmony with the earth and those with whom we share it. Recognize it or not, we are deeply connected, and we find our joy and purpose in the community of those connections.

Little wonder that human happiness is 100% relational. We can’t deny our communal nature or hide it under the myth of the “self-made man” or beneath foolish ideas that suggest that we can live separate lives. We are intimately connected with every other human family with whom we share this planet.

Occasionally, the narcissistic walls that keep us from seeing these connections crumble. Earthquakes do this. Pictures from Haiti move us in ways we can neither understand nor deny, as we witness faces of suffering and recognize those faces as our own.

So we care, we act, we give, becoming more human and, dare I say it, happier, having fulfilled in our bodies the humanity and communal connection God fashioned in our depths.

This is why two funerals I recently led were happier places than the American political marketplace. At the funerals, we remembered, cried and laughed together. We felt the sinews of love, struggle and history that bind us together. Amid sorrow, there was joy as we experienced those connections--and our connection with God.

This is so different from American politics where the reality that we are all in this together is daily ripped asunder by tactics of denunciation and excoriation.

Different, too, were the circles of conversation that continued longer than normal in the narthex last Sunday. Serious exchanges and laughter spiced the air. People shared news of illnesses and treatment, of family visits and children’s activities, of hopes and anxieties for the coming week.

Connections were savored and nurtured, and we were happier and more human for it. In some not-so-hidden way, the kingdom of God’s delight was real.

Pr. David L. Miller