Friday, March 12, 2010

Joy and Religious Belief

My book club met this month to discuss Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project. It was fascinating to me how our religious views shape our view of happiness and how much happiness/joy producing activities we deserve to have.

My friend who prides herself on being an atheist has been perhaps forever shaped by the German culture in which she grew up. She can't shake that Protestant work ethic: joy is something you might work towards when the work is done.

Of course, the problem with that mindset is that the work is never done. There are always surfaces to be scrubbed, paperwork to be managed, family/friend crises, and any number of tasks which feel so important that we put off our own pleasures.

The idea that a person might schedule activities which bring joy was so foreign to her. She couldn't imagine clearing out time in her weekly schedule, much less her daily schedule.

My Hindu friend, on the other hand, told us that her religious tradition requires that they seek joy every day. It's a mandate.

That idea is foreign to me, although I don't think that Christianity started out as such a joyless religion. How would my attitude be different if my Lutheran faith mandated daily joy?

One of our friends seemed almost Buddhist in his mindset. He's just grateful for a day when the worst that could happen doesn't happen. He talks about practicing detachment--but then when he talked about his graduate classes that he's taking now, we could tell that he's not detached.

How would a true Buddhist approach the idea of happiness? How does detachment work in our quest for happiness and joy?

I found Gretchen Rubin's happiness projects fascinating at first, but some way through the book I lost interest. I found her projects almost too tiny, almost too self-absorbed. My faith tells me that we find happiness through service.

I remember when I was in grad school and distressed about my thesis. I felt swamped in writing and thought I would never produce something that would make my thesis director happy. I knew I had to do something to get out of my head.

So, I went to a food pantry and volunteered. Finally, I felt like I was doing work that really mattered. I could work on my prose, my literary analysis and in the end, who cared? What did it matter? What difference did it make?

But after a few hours at the food pantry, I could think of hungry families that could make it for a few more days or weeks. I bagged food, which freed up the case workers to perhaps help families with other issues.

The idea of happiness is so elusive, in so many ways. So many of us think we know what would bring us happiness, but we don't. Or we know, but we don't do those things. Or we do them, only to discover that they no longer bring us happiness.

Maybe in the end, the secret is to act like we're happy, and then our moods will follow. That seems to be what Gretchen Rubin discovers. Or maybe, the secret is to remember that God mandates us to be happy. God didn't put us on this earth to be miserable. I love the vision of God that we see in the first Genesis story (before Adam and Eve barge in), where we see God creating a variety of things and declaring them very good. Our God is a joyful God. We're created in that image.

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