Happiness is for the Birds
I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness lately, not only because we have an upcoming class on happiness here at the church, but because I’ve come to understand that happiness is a choice and even a responsibility. The word happiness derives from the adjective happy, which originally meant, "lucky, favored by fortune, being in advantageous circumstances, prosperous, turning out well," from the noun hap which meant "chance” or “fortune."
When we look at the origin of the word, we get the sense that “happiness” was something that happened to you by chance…or a by twist of fate or fortune. In ancient days, if the goddess Fortuna smiled on you, you were said to be fortunate. You didn’t have any say in this. Life just happened to you. Fortuna was seen as dispassionate, cold, and unfeeling. One day she smiled; one day she frowned, and you never knew why.
We don’t see quite the same perspective in the Bible. Sure, Ecclesiastes says that
“there is a season for everything under heaven…
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
One thing Ecclesiastes tells us is that life is not a whim of Fortune. Rather, it is God who “has made everything suitable for its time” and “that there is nothing better for humanity than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live.” Moreover, “it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.”
I think Ecclesiastes helps us move closer to what a responsibility it is to be happy. God acts on our behalf, whether we understand it all, and in the midst of the rhythms of life, we are to take pleasure and be “happy.”
So, what stops us from experiencing happiness in life?
Well, last week, when I was away on retreat, I met a woman who discovered one secret to happiness. Her doctor told her that she had a brain tumor and needed surgery. When she awoke from this major procedure, she said that she was like a five-year-old child for about six months. She explained, “I mean I was happy all the time. I didn’t care what people thought about me, or what had happened in the past. Cutting out a piece of my brain left me without a sense of regret. In the small town where I live lots of people hold grudges for years. It’s hard to avoid one another, but we always seemed to find a way. After my surgery, I just couldn’t stop smiling. I walked up to everyone and tried to hug them. I didn’t care about all the olds hurts. I was just living in the moment, unabashedly happy! People were really unnerved by my state of being, but it didn’t matter. I just loved everyone. Unfortunately, though, it wore off. About six months later, I began to care again, to worry what everyone else thought about me. But I still have that memory of happiness, and that helps a lot.”
So, is it something in our thoughts, in our minds, that keeps us from experiencing happiness? Worry, regret, shame, fear, old grudges?
Jesus had something to say about all this. He told his disciples, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?” (Luke 12:22-26)
It’s pretty easy to say, “Don’t worry,” and quite another thing to “Let go and let God,” in such a way to experience genuine happiness. What I’m working on is a deeper sense of trust, trust in God, trust in the life that God provides. Jesus’ words help a lot. Prayer helps. Singing helps. Community helps. There’s a lot we can do to live beyond regret and worry. And even though God is the source of life and happiness, we always have a choice in how we accept this life. Happiness is a responsibility, a discipline, and a calling, but not an onus or burden. It is a charisma, a pure and gracious gift.