The Secret to a Happy Life

We said in the previous post that Happiness is a Virtue. It surprised me to learn that my little Orthodox Prayer book listed happiness right next to humility, chastity, etc. I was happy to find that being happy is a virtue one can acquire. Happiness is defined as being well adapted, able to show joy, take pleasure in life as it has been given. Essentially we are defining happiness as the art of being content.  It takes spiritual fortitude to keep that the definition. Advertisers try to convince us that happiness is about stuff and shortcuts.

We get plastic surgery. We quit, we lie, we pretend, we buy things, we leave, we cheat here and there all in the name of a happiness grab. We wait in lines for latest things (you know who you are Fr. James). But stuff does not make us happy.

Larry King had a panel of experts on a few years ago. Maybe you caught it. One expert was a brain-mapper (whatever that it), one was a psychologist, the other expert was a motivational speaker and all were on the show to talk about the secret of happiness. They chat for a while and then Larry got them to distil it down to what is the secret to a happy life. All of them in one way or another said, “everyday when you wake up go over a list of things you are thankful for in your life. And at the end of the day review the day and focused your attention on giving thanks.” They said it a little different but I believe that they were 100% right. Every commercial is about what you don’t have. We spend a lot of time of thinking about what we don’t have and on what is wrong.

Maybe you know the story of Jesus healing the 10 lepers who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When He saw them He said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And He said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” St. Luke 17:12-19

This is St. Paul’s advice is the absolute earliest new testament letter.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

We don’t need to say thanks for the car wreck (especially not in the moment). But this is possible in a heart that is deeply gratefulness.

“Have no anxiety about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7

I know some of us are miserable right now. We have terrible circumstances. Still, there is so much to be thankful for. We need to focus and thank God for what we have rather than focusing on what we do not have. We are rich. The secret to happiness is gratitude. How different would the day be if we focused on what we are thankful for?

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3 Comments

Filed under A Good Life, Orthodox Christianity

3 responses to “The Secret to a Happy Life

  1. David Felker

    A few in my past profession get some things right. One of my greatest friends is quickly losing to Alzheimer’s disorder yet he struggles to hold to this point. I am proud of my “atheist” friend who holds to this within a degenerative disorder.

    Speaking boldly, I’ve known too few fellow believers who truly live your point out. In my view, like Jesus faced in the 6th chapter of John, too many of us want the product and not the relationship.

  2. Pingback: The Secret to a Happy Life (via https://frjamescoles.wordpress.com/) « Joyful Violet

  3. Fr. Austin

    Dear Father,

    I do see what you’re going for with the posts on happiness, but I thought it may be worth pointing out a little context, as I see it…

    The list you gave on the last post, listing the virtues, is clearly listing the virtues opposite to what the Fathers call the chief or lethal passions (sometimes also known as the seven deadly sins). Humility was opposed to pride, liberality to avarice, chastity to lust, mildness to wrath, temperance to gluttony, diligence to akidia (“spiritual torpor and listlessness”) and “happiness” to what is called in Greek “Lipi,” and in Latin “tristitia” – i.e., “sorrow.”

    The usual list of capital vices or deadly sins has always been a bit fluid, sometimes letting “envy” be split between avarice and pride, sometimes confalting pride and vainglory, sometimes conflating “akidia” and “sorrow” into one sin, called “sloth.” The list in your prayerbook seems to reflect some of the traditional fluidity of the list.

    Anyway, the mere word “happiness,” literally means “the state of having good luck.” It is related to words like “happen” or “happenstance.” The closest equivalent in Romance languages, would be a term like the Spanish “bienaventurado,” from which the word “adventure” comes. A lot of people think an adventure is something you go on… but, in all the romantic literature from which our concept of adventure comes, the genre’s primary feature is that “knights errant” (lit. “wandering knights”) simply ride about until something important “happens” to them – i.e., an “adventure,” which derives from the Latin word “aventurus,” meaning “something which is about to befall or happen.” In English, these stories were always translated with forms of the word “happen,” and the well-adventured knight was “happy,” and the people who lived through the great adventures and settled down, lived “happily” ever after.

    Obviously it isn’t a virtue to be happy, per se, in the traditional sense of that word. It is good fortune to be happy. It’s a matter of luck and the “random” experiences that befall us.

    The prayerbook you have seems to reflect certain trends in the 70s in Orthodox and Catholic prayerbooks, where editorial choices were made to update the sense of things and make them more intelligible to modern readers. Sometimes this worked well, but sometimes fine distinctions in meaning were passed over in favour of being easily understood. It is probably translating a Greek word like “hilarotis,” from which word the Saints named Hilarion have taken their name. It’s also where we get our word “hilarious,” but we define that term differently in modern times. Hilarotis would be the opposite of the deadly sin tristitia or sorrow, the sin often conflated with akidia to form “sloth,” which means “despondency, despair, disaffectation, listlessness,” etc. This is the sin of giving up hope or ceasing to take an interest in things, having given in to a sense of defeat or sorrow about one’s ability to succeed in spiritual life.

    So, I think the word would best be translated as “cheerfulness,” or “joy.” Spiritual joy and a sense of good cheer, are things we have control over and can pursue. It doesn’t even mean “to enjoy life as it has been given,” since sometimes the superficial aspects of life may not be very “enjoyable,” and our faith obviously calls upon us to deny ourselves the pleasures of “life as it is given” during our fast periods and in spiritual discipline, generally. Instead, it is referring to the virtue, whereby we find God even in life’s difficult and trying events, and thus find spiritual peace and content despite the seemingly meaninglessness or tragic nature of life, from time to time. It does also involve a good-spirited gratitude for the beauty and perfection of the universe, and our place in it.

    In other words, “happiness” is something we don’t have much control over, since the word really refers to having materially good fortune and falling upon good things. To an extent, we can pursue happiness and resolve to try to be happy even when it’s difficult. But, once we get very far towards that end of the spectrum, I think “cheerfulness” or “joyfulness” is a better choice, and is more faithful to the meaning of the (probable) original Greek word. “Cheerfulness” emphasizes the spiritual decision to be optimistic and grateful to God in an abiding spiritual sense; “happiness” often emphasizes the natural consequences of good circumstances in our lives, which are beyond our control and thus are not at all a matter of virtue.

    I only care, because I once knew a priest who would tell his faithful who were grieving or sad in great difficulties, that they should be happy and know that it’s not God’s will for us to ever be sad. This is a great lie, and even our Saviour – God incarnate! – was “a Man of sorrows and bitterest grief,” Who wept for Lazarus and was in agony in the garden. There is a difference between being sad or sorrowful for a particular reason, and the sin of sorrow, which is a general attitude of negativity and despair. I saw parishioners who were learning to find God in the midst of great trials, and when one of them said that he was learning to thank God for the suffering and pain in his life, this priest actually yelled at him and said that God never wills or wants pain and sorrow for us, and that we should never thank Him for such things; instead, God merely allows such thing to “happen” to us.

    But really, God tells us that “whom I love, I chasten,” and we do in fact know that God implanted the capacity for pain in the human race as a *good,* that would help us to repent and would remind us of our humbled state after the fall. St. Maximos the Confessor teaches this most clearly, but all the Fathers emphasize this point, as well. For all these reasons, I am very cautious whenver I hear people being told that “being happy” is a virtue or spiritual obligation. Reading your posts, I see how much you qualified your description of happiness. But still, people understand the word “happy” in a certain, very ingrained sense, and being “happy” in that sense has nothing to do with spiritual effort or virtue. That’s why I think “cheerfulness” or “spiritual joy” are better terms for this virtue.

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