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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Can Money Buy Happiness?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 10, 2008


A long time ago, a Chinese poet wrote these beautiful words:

The clouds above us join and separate.
The breeze in the courtyard leaves and returns.
Life is like that, so why not relax?
Who can keep us from celebrating?

The fact of the matter is, of course, that far too often we stop ourselves from celebrating this wonderful miracle of life. We dwell in anger about things that have happened to us in the past. We live in fear about what might occur in the future. In the meantime, the glorious moment which is today passes away.

"The first recipe for happiness is [this],” wrote the French man of letters, Andre Maurois: “Avoid too lengthy meditations on the past." The past is gone; perhaps it was painful, and understanding the past is important. But dwelling on the past—rehearsing it and reliving it over and over again—seems a sure recipe for misery. Likewise, if we think of the present only as a bridge to tomorrow—as a mere “investment” from which we hope to get an ever bigger and bigger return—we rob today of its power and joy as well. Then, we’ll never be satisfied. We’ll never be happy.

“The pursuit of happiness” is, of course, part of the epic myth of the founding of our nation. It’s even inscribed in the holy scripture of American civil religion, so to speak, the Declaration of Independence.

But is happiness something that can be pursued at all? Or, by even pursuing it, are we doomed to lose it. “Call some place paradise, kiss it good-bye,” the Eagles sang. Once we, frantically or not, start looking for happiness, is it bound to escape from out of our clutches? Is happiness like a house that we build, beam by beam, brick by brick? Or is it more like wildflowers that grow in the meadow—beautiful and blessed, but fleeting, transient, and ultimately beyond our control?

Can we attempt consciously to build happy lives for ourselves? Or is happiness merely the product of the random twistings and turnings of fate—completely spontaneous, utterly ephemeral, here one moment, gone the next? Or is chemistry merely a product of our bio-chemistry? Is it all about our makeup, and temperament, or the enzymes our brains secrete? Certainly, some people just seem happier than others. Is chemistry—or perhaps even nationality—destiny, as far as being happy is concerned?

Well, different things make different people happy—that’s for sure. We all know people, I bet, whose perpetual attitude toward life is “Well, it could always be worse.” They’ve been diagnosed with some huge illness, and they’ve lost their job, and they’re running out of money, and their spouse is sick, too, but even after listing all their woes, they’ll respond when you ask them how they cope with it all: “Well, it could always be worse.” For them, every cloud has a silver lining, and there are always new possibilities waiting on the horizon.

On the other hand, we all know those who bring the dark cloud with them when they come into a room. Things never measure up to what they want them to be. They never feel totally well. There’s never enough money. Other people are always letting them down. They’re not happy—and you shouldn’t be either, they seem to say. To them, every silver lining has its own cloud.

We’re all different, and most of us are probably somewhere in the middle between these two extremes. But one thing we all know whether we’re optimists or pessimists about life in general is that we cannot hope to experience only happiness in this life. Life—blessed, blissful life—is sometimes a “valley of love and delight”; but it is also, quite often, a vale of tears and an abode of sorrows—sorrows more tragic than words can tell sometimes. We human ones live in the land between those two valleys, the land between joy and woe. To think that we can live anywhere else is a sham; it is to live a delusion.

Life does not owe any of us happiness. Furthermore, among several of the great religions of the East, it is taught that the ultimate source of all of our misery, all of our unhappiness, is our clinging to the this life, clinging to the things of this world. The world is, by its very nature, fleeting. We are all in a constant process of change. No experience—no person—no single aspect of existence—abides for more than a relative instant. To cling to comfort and convenience—even to cling to those we love most dearly—is to invite misery. In the Eastern view, all life is suffering. The only way to end suffering then—the only way to be happy—is to break out of the bonds of this transient world, and somehow become one with the Ultimate. The only way to be happy, then, is to experience a release from the endless cycles of life, what the Hindus call moksha, and what the Buddhists call nirvana.

We don’t know for sure what awaits us on the other side of this life, on the other side of “sleep’s dark and silent gate”. We don’t know whether death is merely the end of this life and the gate to another, or whether the night here might not be somewhere else a dawn. But many of us do affirm that, whatever the state of the life to come, this life is important. So to us, denying the importance of this life is to deny the preciousness of the gift of life we have received, here and now.

Life isn’t easy. Even when it’s going well, it’s not easy. Perhaps we are, in our own day, experiencing an epidemic of discontent, and unhappiness with the way things are. Many people are dissatisfied with their lives, and with our national life, and some of that dissatisfaction—that dis-ease with the way things are, can be healthy—because, just maybe, it can be a fuse, it can act as a fuse, and can eventually empower us to take action-- to do something—to make things better.

Perhaps we modern men and women are finally coming to realize that to worship at the altar of narrow personal happiness alone—to pursue a sort of shallow, superficial “fun and games” kind of happiness as the sole purpose of our lives—is to worship at the altar of a false god. In one of his general audiences during his brief 34-day reign as pope, John Paul I told the story of a man who went to buy a car. The salesman told him plainly, "Look here, it's a good car; mind that you treat it well. Put premium gasoline in the tank, and for the joints, use the best oil, the good stuff." But the man replied: "Oh, no. I can't stand the smell of gasoline, and that oil gets all over my clothes and gets my hands dirty. I'll put champagne, which I like so much, in the tank, and I'll oil the joints with strawberry jam." To which the salesman replied, "Do what you like; but don't come and complain if you end up in a ditch with your car!"

Trying to pursue a “fun and games” kind of happiness throughout life is like trying to live on a steady diet of champagne and strawberry jam: it might taste pretty good at first, but it’s not going to be satisfying for long, and in the end, it might even make you pretty sick.

But in this champagne and jam culture of ours, how incessant the clamor for perpetual “happiness” (if you really want to call it that) seems to be. Over the course of our lives, we’ve all watched way too many commercials with people who are perpetually young, perpetually affluent, perpetually thin—and, somehow, perpetually happy. They also seem to be perpetually not working. (Did you ever wonder why the only commercials where people are doing any work are the ones for Excedrin or Preparation-H or something like that?)

It’s amusing on the surface of things. But it’s dangerous, too. Because when we’re bombarded with images like these from our perpetually “happy”, escapist culture, we internalize them, and start to feel as though, somehow, we just don’t “measure up”. So, we might start to think that if we’re not happy all the time, then there must be something wrong with us. Maybe if we just had those things that those people in the commercials had—more money, nice clothes or furniture, a thinner waistline, a fancy vacation, whatever—then maybe we could be as happy as they seem to be.

It’s not as though we don’t know how absurd this point of view is. “Money can’t buy happiness,” the old saying goes. And we nod our heads, and we say, “How true.” Of course, we’ve all noticed, many times, how some of the wealthiest people seem to be among the most miserable. All of their material prosperity and success hasn’t added one bit of happiness to their lives, really. Not in the end. Not when their health fails. Not when their lives are touched by tragedy. But how seductive (and how incessant) the ways of the world—and especially the ways of this corporate monolith under which we are now living-- seem to be.

This past Thursday night, about a dozen or fifteen of us gathered in the parlor, and watched the movie, The Secret. It told about how people could use intentionality—the so called “Law of Attraction”—to achieve what they want to achieve in life. (We’re going to discuss some of these concepts further at another Free Market of Ideas gathering on February 21, if you’d like to come.)

Now, there was much in this movie that was fascinating—and worthy of discussion—and much can be said about the power of intentionality and positive imaging and science of the mind in focusing people’s thoughts, and giving purpose to their lives, and helping them to achieve their goals. I don’t disparage any of that, and the movie, The Secret, talked about those things.

But a whole lot of the movie—most of it, I would guess (though I didn’t measure it) talked about how people could use their minds, and their emotions, and their inner powers to conjure up all kinds of stuff for themselves: more money, better jobs, bigger houses, fancier cars, and so on and on. Like all that was really the most important thing in life. Like getting all those things would really “make us happy”. But we know better than that by now, don’t we? When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?

I like having stuff as much as anybody—and I guess I’ve got less stuff than some people, but a whole lot more than others, and certainly more than I need. But I know that all those trinkets, all these baubles and trappings of life I have around me aren’t going to make me happy when push comes to shove. I don’t kid myself that they’re the most important things in my life. Not even close.

But it is true, as Bruce Southworth writes, that “The accumulation of capital, of wealth, is the driving motor of… our culture.” The unending quest for the “good life”—and around here and in most of the world today—that “good life” is always defined in the most narrow materialistic values alone—is part of the very air we breathe. To break out of that mindset—to live life differently—requires consciously taking a stand counter to the prevailing culture. That’s never easy to do. And it’s even harder to teach our kids.

But that’s why we’re here—in church, in this church—this morning. That’s why we keep searching for a spiritual pathway through these lives we lead. To strengthen and fortify one another in our quest for the real “good life”—the deep, inner life which the ways of this world can neither give nor take away. Which can survive the loss of employment—the struggles of health—even the passing of those we love—because it is built on a rock, and not on the shifting sands of the times.

We can be a community of people so bold. Bold enough to resist the acquisitiveness and accumulativeness of our times and our culture. In the face of a culture which shouts out at us at every instant “More! More! More!” may we be bold enough to shout back (or to whisper back, or even to sing back, depending on the circumstances): “Less! Less! Less.”

H.C. Mattern was a close personal friend of Norman Vincent Peale, the great motivational preacher and the founder of Guideposts magazine. Peale just couldn’t figure out why Mattern was always so happy all the time. He was always happy. It was even too much for Mr. Positive Thinking himself. So, Peale asked him out day, “H.C., why are you so darned happy all the time?”

Then Mattern took out a little card from his wallet—not a Visa card—not an American Express Platinum card—not even the list of the “feel good” medications he was taking. It was a little book mark, and on it was printed these words:

“The way to happiness: keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry. Live simply, expect little, give much. Fill your life with love. Scatter sunshine. Forget self, think of others. Do as you would be done by. Try this for a week and you will be surprised.”

If we were to try it for a lifetime, imagine how we’d feel!

“Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry.” Dwell neither in the past nor in the future. Live the precious moment— right now.

“Live simply, expect little, give much.” Ask not what life can give to you; ask what you can give to life.

“Fill your life with love. Scatter sunshine. Forget self, think of others. Do as you would be done by.” There is enough wisdom in every one of those little lines for another whole sermon. Enough wisdom in each of them, too, to give us each something to live for; to give us each plenty to be happy about.

May that great Giver of Immortal Gladness help us to open our eyes both to the glories and the challenges of this world, and to choose for ourselves productive and fulfilling—and happy—lives, here and now.


 


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