October 14, 2011

Gratitude & The Pursuit of Happiness

Last week I was in our nation’s capital. I had a few hours between meetings so I decided to take a stroll down the Washington Mall. With so many choices before me--the Andy Warhol exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, the newly opened Newseum—I was surprised by a sudden impulse to visit the National Archives to see with my own eyes the Declaration of Independence.

I’m not quite sure what drove me to see the documents that framed our nation’s democracy. Perhaps I, like many, am growing weary of the political rancor and rigidity that is impeding the capacity of so many to pursue a well-lived life. Clearly the growing protests around the country are a sign of increasing disillusionment and discontent.

To see the original penmanship of our founding fathers evoked in me a deep appreciation of how these words have shaped countless generations in the pursuit of happiness. I also deeply admired their curvy and neat handwriting!

What does pursuing happiness look like for us today? 

Time Magazine reported last week in a special “money edition” that an income of $75,000 is optimal for the pursuit of happiness. Citing a Princeton University study, researchers found that as people earn more money their day-to-day happiness rises until they reach a certain income level. An income of $75,000 is the figure at which happiness peaks. Earning more than this has no measurable effect on day-to day contentment. (The median household income in 2009 was $50,221).

We know there are many ways to define happiness. (Remember the song “Happiness Is” from You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown)? The study from Princeton distinguishes between two forms of happiness. The first is the day-to-day contentment (emotional well-being) and the second is overall life assessment meaning broader satisfaction with one’s place in the world. While higher income didn’t have much of an impact on day-to-day contentment, it did boost people’s life assessment

Harvard Business School Professor Michael Norton, who researches the psychology of happiness, warns that many Americans are buying the wrong brand of happiness. He says that buying a flat screen TV -- like eating French fries -- can satisfy a craving, making us happy in the moment, but it is not the best strategy for long-term well being. Spending money on friends and loved ones, donating to charities, spending money on experiences that enhance the feelings of meaning and social connection – these are the types of expenditures that provide the best long terms strategies for happiness.

While our cultural DNA may lead us to pursue shallow or fleeting happiness, how does claiming our spiritual DNA help us to find lasting happiness?

Our Founding Fathers affirmed, we are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights,” meaning that we are bound in relationship to our Creator and that our deepest meaning comes from living into the image and likeness of God. This is not a scientific statement, this is a faith statement.

To live into God’s image means we love as God loves, we rule as God rules, and we give as God gives. Inherent to our happiness are giving and sharing. Inherent to our happiness is being in relationship with God and with one another. It is easy forget this. We need companions on the way to remind us that life abundant is found in communities of faith striving to follow Jesus.

This is the time of year that many congregations are immersed in the annual giving campaign. This is an important time in the life of the congregation—not only to raise money for the life-giving ministries of the congregation, but to explore important questions: What brings happiness? How does your faith community help you build lasting happiness? How does the opportunity to give strengthen the bonds of connection you experience in your community?

Shared meals and shared life with family, friends, and those in need – this is the essence of abundant life that Jesus came to give. Each time we gather at the Lord’s table we are invited into lasting happiness, lasting gratitude for the abiding presence of God-for-us, God-with-us, and God-in-us. In worship, we celebrate a meal of gratitude for a life of gratitude for the One who from the beginning of time has desired to be in communion with us.

Each and every generation must discover that giving of self is a path to happiness and that God is indeed bound to our happiness.

The Rev. Laurel Johnston is the Program Officer for Stewardship for the Episcopal Church. To view Feasting on Gratitude, a six-week stewardship reflection series visit: www.thestewardswell.org