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A Map to Happiness

I recently read this Chinese saying: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”

There’s a lot written these days about happiness. It’s a subject that didn’t seem to come up so often years ago. I don’t know whether people were actually happier then. It just wasn’t often talked about or written about. You were either happy or you weren’t, and you didn’t really focus on the subject of your own happiness.

Today, it seems to be a favorite topic of some university departments, who study about every aspect of happiness, and unhappiness. Harvard University is often cited in popular articles on the subject.

Decreasing Happiness?

A Harvard Gazette article last month by staff writer Alvin Powell, for instance, reported on a study by the university’s Human Flourishing Program. It quotes Tyler VanderWeele, the program’s director, saying that beginning in January 2020, right before the pandemic, the program’s studies were showing decreasing happiness among American young people.

 “But January 2022 was the first time it was just absolutely clear,” he told the reporter: “across every dimension of well-being that we looked at — happiness, health, meaning, character, relationships, financial stability — each one was strictly increasing with age. Those who are 18 to 25 felt they were worse off across all these dimensions. It was pretty striking, pretty disturbing.”

Someone like me, who writes about religion, will note that “spiritual” is not among the relevant categories. It evidently is not considered worthy to be among “every dimension of well-being.”

Since the Middle Ages

That’s interesting because traditional Christian philosophers and theologians, at least since the Middle Ages, have insisted that happiness is the reason and goal of human existence and that union with God fulfills both. Many modern happiness studies, on the other hand, suggest that happiness depends on circumstances.

The Be Well program at Stanford University appears to be an exception. It identifies three categories of happiness, starting with “the pleasurable life,” which is concerned with short-term happiness like “walks, chats with friends, fun outings, and enjoying good food.” It’s centered on the “good life.”

The second category is called “The engaged life,” described as “the feeling of being so engaged in an activity that we lose track of time. This focused concentration creates a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction.” 

The third is “the meaningful life,” a sustainable long-term happiness” which we discover “when we understand our core values as guides to discovering meaning and purpose by serving the greater good.

Give Them Away

The report includes a famous quote: “’The purpose of life is to find your gifts, the work of life is to develop your gifts, the meaning of life is to give your gifts away.’ Our values are our anchor, and when we express our values in how we serve others, self-doubts become less important than our purpose.

“…For some, service might involve directly helping other people, animals or the planet. For others, either being on a team or individually analyzing a new theory that improves life and health, serving food to nourish our community … developing a new discovery or scientific advancement. Whatever your method, living with a sense of happiness and joy naturally stems from a life of service and wishing the best for others.”

This comes close to the idea of happiness presented by many religions, including Christianity, whose gospels and gospel followers – including St. Francis of Assisi, to whom the following prayer is ascribed – continually promote self-giving. For people searching for God, this prayer is a map to happiness. 

O Divine to Master,

Grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console; 

To be understood, as to understand;

To be loved, as to love; 

For it is in giving that we receive, 

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 

And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.


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