The happiness business

By Daniel Burke
Saturday, December 4, 2010

'Tis the season . . . for Black Friday, Cyber Monday, consumer spending reports and large doses of Christmas spirits - often of the alcoholic, not good-cheer variety.

But before you rush off to the mall or join the office holiday party, some A-list religious leaders want you to know one thing: The happiness derived from tearing open a coveted gift or downing a tasty beverage will fade before the final stanza of "Auld Lang Syne." And all you'll be left with in the New Year is an empty wallet and a hangover.

In fact, the consumer-driven culture whose engine revs this time of year is probably "the most efficient system yet devised for the manufacture and distribution of unhappiness," says Lord Jonathan Sacks, Britain's chief rabbi.

"The consumer society is constantly tempting us to spend money we don't have, to buy things we don't need, for the sake of a happiness that won't last," warns Sacks.

So, if iPods and eggnog won't do the trick, what will make us happy?

Sacks was one of four prominent religious leaders invited by Emory University in Atlanta this year to answer that eternal question. "The Pursuit of Happiness Conference," organized by Emory's Center for the Study of Law and Religion, also included the Dalai Lama, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a noted Muslim scholar at George Washington University.

As might be expected, the four religious leaders disagreed about how to define happiness. Buddhism, after all, doesn't even posit an all-controlling God who guides the way to a presumably blissful afterlife.

But they concurred in warning that the heedless pursuit of pleasure leads down a spiritual dead end.

In a nutshell, their common advice might be dubbed the "happiness paradox": the more you give, the happier you get. In that way, Sacks said, spiritual happiness is the "greatest source of renewable energy we have."

"If I have a certain amount of money and I give some to you, I have less," Sacks said. "But if I have a certain amount of friendship or love or trust and I give it to you, I don't have less, I have more."

There are two basic levels of happiness, the Dalai Lama said: mental and physical. In recent centuries, humans have become expert at satisfying our physical desires, but our spiritual skills have not kept pace, he said.

"A rich family, their physical comforts reach a very high standard," said the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader. "But that is no guarantee of reaching the same standards in peace of mind." Instead, material wealth often leads to "more worry, more anxiety, perhaps more jealousy and more fear."

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