Winter 2011: Features

Together on stage for happiness conference

Faith leaders joined His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama to debate the path to true fulfillment at the Interfaith Summit on Happiness, held at Emory in October.

Bryan Meltz

Happy Thoughts

Faith leaders say happiness is a worthy goal—though it might not be what you think

The Declaration of independence proclaims that the pursuit of happiness, along with life and liberty, is an unalienable right. But many of us have been taught that happiness is a selfish or superficial emotion. Is there a place for happiness alongside good work? Should we seek to be happy even as others are suffering?

The consensus from spiritual leaders of several major religious traditions, who gathered at Emory in October, seems to be that happiness is sought by all humans—and rightfully so—but that true spiritual happiness must be rooted in gratitude and compassion, and given as well as received.

As part of a five-year investigation into the pursuit of happiness, Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) invited notable voices from the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist traditions to speak at the Interfaith Summit on Happiness, which was moderated by Krista Tippett, host of NPR’s On Being. “Happiness seems always to be best achieved in community, if not in communion, with others,” says John Witte, CSLR director.

His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, Presidential Distinguished Professor at Emory, said finding commonalities among the major faiths is essential for peaceful coexistence. “Harmony on the basis of mutual admiration and respect is very possible to develop,” he said. The Dalai Lama often says that the very purpose of life is to be happy, so long as “one person or group does not seek happiness or glory at the expense of others.”

The Dalai Lama was joined on the panel by the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor at George Washington University. As they explored the concept of happiness through the texts, tenets, and teachings of their respective faiths, several points of convergence emerged.

Happiness is radically subjective. “How wrong Tolstoy was when he wrote in the beginning of Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike . . . happiness isn’t like that. It comes in many forms,” Sacks said. “We are enriched by the sheer multiplicity of ways in which human beings have flourished.”

Happiness cannot be purchased. “The consumer society is constantly tempting us all the time to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need for the sake of a happiness that won’t last,” Sacks said.

Happiness involves the body and the mind. “It is important to us that God took physical form,” said Jefferts Schori. “We are made in the image of God and reflect the divine. Our bodies are a blessing.” “This body is something precious,” said the Dalai Lama. “It needs shelter, food, and sleep. When the body is fit, mental function is more effective. But mental pain cannot be subdued by physical comfort.”

Happiness is generated internally. “It is a happy human being who creates a happy ambience, a happy ambience does not necessarily create a happy human being,” said Nasr. “Real happiness must come from within,” said the Dalai Lama. “When I say happiness, it is mainly in the sense of deep satisfaction.”

Happiness can be found here on earth. “God’s presence and blessings can be found in the form of thisworldly ‘goods.’ Those goods include food, drink, shelter, clothing, liberty, peace, family, meaningful work, community, and a general state of well-being,” said Jefferts Schori. “Jesus speaks of himself as bridegroom in a marriage or remarriage between God and humanity—reuniting the creator with created—and the rich bounty that that brings.”

Happiness occurs in communal celebration. “To sit together, drink together, share one another’s songs and stories, that is beautiful,” Sacks said.

Happiness involves helping others. “Jesus’s ministry, his public work, is most essentially focused on feeding, healing, and teaching people—in that order,” said Jefferts Schori. “Using the blessings of this world for the benefit of all.”

Happiness can be found in prayer or meditation. “The five daily prayers pull us out of time to a place that is sacred,” said Nasr. “Punctuation in a life that goes faster and faster.”

Happiness comes from finding perspective. “When we face a sad thing, if you look very closely, it looks unbearable, but if you look from a distance, it is not that unbearable,” said the Dalai Lama. “Like Jacob wrestling with the angel,” said Sacks, “I will not let go of the bad thing until I find the blessing.”

Happiness requires self-awareness and acceptance. “Once it was asked of a great Sufi master, ‘What do you want?’ and he said, ‘I want not to want,’ ” said Nasr.

Happiness involves letting go. “We must transcend the stifling prison of the ego,” said Nasr. “The Buddhist practice is . . . letting go,” said the Dalai Lama. “Letting go of negative thoughts and emotions.”

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