Happy Thoughts

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

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

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.

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