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Happiness is Simple

Regard as free not those whose statues makes them outwardly free, but those who are free in their character and conduct. For we should not call men in authority truly free when they are wicked for dissolute, since they are slaves to worldly passions. Freedom and happiness of soul consist in genuine purity and detachment from transitory things . . . .Holiness and intelligence of soul are to be recognized from a man’s eye, walk, voice, laugh, the way he spends his time and the company he keeps. Everything is transformed and reflects an inner beauty.  For the intellect which enjoys the love of God is a watchful gate-keeper and bars entry to evil and defiling thoughts. – St. Antony the Great

Happiness is so simple that only we human beings can complicate it until we are miserable. Spiritual teachers throughout the centuries not only found happiness without having any possessions, they found a greater happiness in their self-imposed poverty. Yet in this modern age of accumulating capital, keeping up with the Joneses, endless desires to be the most beautiful and popular, we find no solace in misery. Why? We don’t want to lose what we have and want to get more of what we don’t have. Happiness becomes a function of self-esteem rather than self-esteem being a result of a better orientation to happiness itself.

In one place self-esteem, sense of perceived control, extraversion, optimism, social relationships, and a sense of meaning predict happiness. In a Pew report, “the most robust correlations of all those described…are health, income, church attendance, being married and, yes, being a Republican.” Joel Osteen certainly has the religious market covered with the consumer-driven rhetoric of goal achievement, claiming the victory over our circumstances, and reaping the benefits of God’s plan in a few simple steps. But what if those goals fall flat? What if God blesses us with a foreclosure, a disease, or the death of a child? What kind of positive thinking will help us then?

One longitudinal study and a school of thought points to other factors: Gratitude, realistic expectations, staying present.

Everyone says they want to live in the present, but there’s a paradox: “If you’re not in the present, you’re not there to know you’re not there,” says (Ellen) Langer, with a smile. “So how do you get there? This work tells us how: when you’re actively noticing new things, you become more aware of context and perspective. You end up with a healthier respect for uncertainty, something we are taught to fear. Our baseline state should be mindful; it’s how we should feel virtually all the time.”

This just brings us back to ancient wisdom. From the ancient Christian ascetics to the Buddha one thing over everything else will predict how happy we are: staying present and letting things go. The more we clutch a rose by the stem, the deeper the thorns dig into our skin so that we cease to enjoy the smell or beauty of the flower. The more we fight against a fish-hook, the deeper it goes causing deeper pain. If we lean into our fears and hurts as well as our joys in the moment and then let them go naturally, happiness is there with us.

About Andrew Tatusko

Secularization, critical pedagogy, sometimes agnostic, politics, and a ton of running. Penn State is definitely not responsible for what I say.


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