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  • Greg Hiebert

The Spirituality of Happiness


The following is a sermon I delivered at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

What a blessing and joy to have this great opportunity to share a sermon with you. The Poet Mary Oliver wrote these beautiful words, “Hello, sun in my face. Hello you who made the morning and spread it over the fields...Watch, now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness” What a wonderful way to begin a sermon on the Spirituality of Happiness!


We don’t see the world as it is but as we are and so I do want to share my own interpretation of these two words Spirituality and Happiness. For me Spirituality is the capacity to connect one’s spirit with the spirit of the divine wherever we can encounter it. It is a process for discovering who you are and why you are here. Rabbi Rami Shapiro writes: “Why you are here is cultivate the self in such a way as to be a more effective vehicle of the self and in this way make your world more just, meaningful, loving and holy.” I define happiness as the experience of positive emotions-pleasure combined with deeper feelings of meaning, flow, connection, and achievement.


The embodiment of the spirituality of happiness is in the life of Alice Herz-Sommers. I remember perhaps a year ago watching a short YouTube video featuring this magnificent woman. At age 108, Alice is the world's oldest survivor of the Holocaust. She was imprisoned at Theresienstadt, which was conceived by Hitler as a "model" concentration camp. Can you imagine the horrors and suffering she witnessed? Alice is a pianist and in between the summer of 1943 and the camp's liberation at the end of the war, she played more than 100 concerts at Theresienstadt.


What makes Alice extraordinary though is not her piano playing but her spirit as she has survived for more than a century with a profound faith in the ultimate goodness of humanity and an undiminished sense of joy and happiness in the gift of life. Alice’s music is her prayer as she still practices piano for three hours every day. I think Alice’s life is a recipe for how we can make this one life as fulfilling and engaging as possible.


Alice says, "We are responsible for our actions and our words and each of us must vigilantly guard against prejudice and hatred in our own minds and with the words that fall from our lips. No one is exempt. Hitler could not have come to power except in the climate of excessive hatred." Alice understands that anyone, anywhere, and at any time can adopt hatred and, worse, can infect others with its poison. Hatred may start with one person but like a stone thrown into a pond that hatred can quickly spread to larger groups and eventually entire nations. The other day my daughter Molly shared that one of her friends, Claire, who Molly says is just about the sweetest and kindest person she knows, told her, “I am committed to making no judgments about anyone.” How wonderful is that….at 16 to see that the pathway to inner joy and happiness is to let go of this terrible human habit of making judgments and assessments about everything.


Alice poured herself into her piano performances. As the Nazi’s ordered the prisoners to organize concerts, lectures and other events, the prisoners took their performances just as seriously as if they were performing on the world stage. Alice remembers, "As our situation became even more difficult, we tried even harder to reach for perfection, for the meaning in the music, Music was our way of remembering our inner selves, our values and our spirit."


In the camp Alice learned what she could live without. Rather than grieving for what she did not have, she rejoiced in what she had. Alice knew that no one could rob her of the treasures of her mind. "I am richer than the world's richest person because I have music in my heart and mind," she says today. While performing she and the other performers could nearly forget their hunger and their surroundings. Besides the terror of finding their names on a deportation list for Auschwitz, the fear of dying of starvation, typhus, and other diseases had become a reality. "Music was our food, our religion and our hope," she says. "Music was life. We did not, could not, and would not give up."


Alice is anything but naïve and is acutely aware of the evil that has always been present in our world. "I know about the bad, but I look for the good," she says. Groundbreaking research in neuroscience and psychology is affirming that when we are in a positive, optimistic and enthusiastic state of being, we are ultimately happier and also are much more creative and productive. Yet looking for the good does not come naturally to us-our biological and evolutionary characteristics leave us highly prone to look for the negative; to see threats all around us and to be ever ready for flight or fight.


And the statistics of our society give stark credence to the impact of negative emotions. Many studies show how prolonged stress, chronic fatigue, and deepened cynicism lead to other unhealthy outcomes such as obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, High Blood Pressure which in turn have been shown to influence chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. The Conference Board Survey in 2010 found less than 45% of workers were happy at their jobs-lowest recorded. Depression rates today 10 times higher than in 1960 with over 150 million prescriptions written for anti-depressants; Fifty years ago average age of depression was 29.5; today is exactly half-14. 75 % of Americans in 1940 reported being “very satisfied”; today that number has dropped to well below 67% despite extraordinary progress in quality of life. And we know all too well that over the last 10 years our country’s obesity has climbed from 22% to close to 30% and continuing on a steep trajectory.


As Alice faces the last years of her life, she does not waste time with fears of death and worries about the unknown. "We come from and return to infinity," she says. "The soul lives on without the body." Alice finds consolation in her spiritual theme song, "Urlicht," with its opening words "I come from God and I will return to God." "Things are as they are supposed to be," she says. "I am still here, never too old so long as I breathe to wonder, to learn, to laugh and to teach." To watch Alice is to connect with the Devine as you witness this woman’s amazing grace, a smile that never stops shining and her immense generosity of spirit. What a lesson for all of us to live-to wonder, learn, laugh and teach….


Alice lives her life with great passion and joy and points us to a key theme in the pursuit of happiness. In the New Testament in the Book of Luke, Chapter 17, Verse 21: Jesus says in conversation with his disciples: “Neither shall they say, See here! or, see there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”


This teaching is quite consistent with Buddha’s as he states: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become. Happiness comes from within. Do not seek it without.”


Many of us have been carefully taught that happiness will come when we have achieved and fulfilled our goals; “One day when______, I will be happy,” and far too often base our future happiness on the possession of something material such as a house, a particular kind of car, a title and position, a level of salary. And when we get there, we find only momentary pleasure and quickly go back to whatever level of dissatisfaction we were at before getting what we thought would bring us eternal happiness. Today, groundbreaking research in Neurosciences and Psychology confirm what Jesus, Buddha, and the Dalia Lama have been telling us all along, that we have this all wrong-that happiness is the precursor to success, not merely the result. As the Dalai Lama says, “Don’t seek happiness, be Happy.”


We now know that positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin; not only making us feel better but lighting up the learning centers of our brains to high levels.


And that happiness, enthusiasm and optimism actually fuels better engagement and achievement as the more happy, positive, and optimistic we are, the more creative, imaginative, open, thoughtful, and productive we become.


New studies that show:

-Doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis are 3X more intelligent, creative and make more accurate diagnoses 19% faster.

-2009 Meta-analysis of 200 studies on 275,000 people confirmed that happiness leads to success in nearly every domain including work, health, friendship, creativity and energy.

-In 1940s, 180 Catholic Nuns (all born before 1917) were asked to write down their thoughts in autobiographical journal entries; 90% of those assessed as positive lived well past 85 while only 34% of the least positive lived past 85.

-Unhappy employees stay home an average of 15 more sick days a year!


So if the pathway to happiness lies in what we tell ourselves, then what are those practices that we can do to better cultivate a spirit of greater and more consistent happiness in our lives? I call them practices because I think for most of us, that is indeed what it requires and it doesn’t happen without clear intention, focused attention and continued effort. The Human experience contains the seeds of greatness as well as the seeds of despair and I believe each of us has those seeds within us and what grows is what we nurture and feed. In my own journey I have found that this pathway can be organized into three core elements: Doing good; Feeling good; and Engaging fully in life.


1) Doing Good begins with seeking, finding and keeping a Purpose that is bigger than our own self interests….Mary Oliver wrote: “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” The Emerson Mission Statement “Seek truths, celebrate differences, act on our Unitarian Universalist Principles, inspire the best in each of us and serve the world, ” is certainly a bold purpose that calls us to strive and reach beyond ourselves to achieve. I also believe that each of us should try to define our own purpose statement. Mine is probably a bit long but it is mine, it is a work in progress and for now it provides me with meaningful direction and guidance for how I should live each day. “I am grateful for the gift of life. I strive to live with integrity. I am committed to serving and supporting others by helping them grow, learn and lead more effectively in the world. I treat those I encounter with respect, kindness, compassion, and humility. I give generously and am committed to the success of my wife, children, family, friends, business colleagues and clients. I take responsibility for my actions and inactions and recognize that my life is not only about me but that I have an obligation to make a positive difference in this world and this life. I live in a place of possibility for what life can be while continuing to awake to the joy, peace and grace that life is at this present moment.”


2) A dear friend of mine, John Buonviaggio who has spent a large part of his life in prison ministry and is one of the most compassionate people I have ever met, said it best-“that what you keep you lose but what you give away is yours forever.” And so armed with a purpose bigger than our own self interest the happiest people on earth are those who live lives of noble service to others and find ways each and ever day to give what they have away to others. They say one of the most fun and life giving practices is to engage in random acts of kindness.


3) “One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make others happy; one of the best ways to make others happy is to be happy yourself.” And so to do good we must nurture and cultivate ourselves. Feeling Good is all about Self-care-Right sleep, right nutrition, right exercise and movement; and mindfulness and meditation. I hope many of our Beloved Emerson community will take advantage of the efforts to bring laughing yoga to us. What a delightful and happiness producing treat. Dalai Lama says: “If you don’t love yourself, you cannot love others. You will not be able to love others. If you have no compassion for yourself then you are not able of developing compassion for others.” In order to love someone on the outside you first have to love yourself. You basically can’t give what you don’t have. So we must cultivate love and compassion for yourself.


4) Two of the greatest practices that we can do to feel good is: Savoring our positive experiences and reflecting on those things and people in our lives that we are most grateful for. In savoring our positive experiences it is as simple as trying each day to recount at least three positive experiences of our day and more that we can describe these positive experiences the richer and more impactful they are on increasing our positive feelings and happiness. The other practice is in reflecting daily about what we are most grateful and appreciative of and then if possible to take share this goodness by express it to others. A friend of mine who is going through a very difficult time in her career shared with me the other day that starting her day in the practice of gratitude and appreciation has been life giving and life changing. And while she initially resisted it, she stayed with it and began to notice how it was generating resilience to support her in the midst of great challenges. When you are thinking about what is good, what is positive and noble, it is impossible at that moment to think about the bad and the negative. What we nurture and feed grows…..


5) Finally, the last practice and perhaps the most powerful practice of all is in strengthening our social bonds. My dear friend Peter shared the other day that one of the most powerful ways to move from illness to wellness is in changing the “I” to “We”….we are too often fed this myth about the rugged individual who overcomes adversity in achieving greatness. Yet there is no real story of one that doesn’t contain the story of many. We are meant for community and relationship and in any meaningful, productive community and relationship there is a willingness to give up a part of what I want so that I may receive the blessings of belonging. I recall as the director of a musical being performed at the Harvard Business School on opening night the cast and crew had really pulled together to put on a spectacular evening of entertainment for our audience and we had united under a simple purpose that at the end of each performance that our audience would be so moved by our musical that they would give us at least a 5 minute standing ovation. Yet, I sensed before the curtain lifted that there was much anxiety and concern about our capacity to deliver….and so I chose to share a part of a song that came from a Catholic Monk, “Wherever We Go” to remind everyone what was most important. I asked that we all gather in a large circle, hold hands as I read:

“I want to say something to all of you who have become a part of the fabric of my life. The color and texture, which you have brought into my being, have become a song and I want to sing it forever. There is an energy in us, which makes things happen; when the paths of other persons touch ours, and we have to be there and let it happen. When the time of our particular sunset comes, our thing, our accomplishment won't really matter a great deal. But the clarity and care with which we have loved others will speak with vitality of the great gift of life we have been for each other.” At the end of this, there wasn’t a dry eye among these “type A” Harvard Business School students who were still holding hands…and we believe the standing ovation on opening night was even longer than 5 minutes. There is something in all of us that seeks to belong and we have an opportunity in the midst of our beloved Emerson Community to nurture that sense of belonging and to live out our vision statement: “To be a radically inclusive, open minded, Beloved Community that is a vibrant source of peace, hope and healing.” And I might add….and great Happiness!


In a small town a Rabbi of a small Jewish Synagogue was praying quietly in his home when he was interrupted by the knock of an unexpected visitor. Upon opening the door he was quite surprised that before him stood the Abbot of the large Monastery that was just at the edge of the town and was quite well known.


“Why, Abbot this is quite a surprise to see you in front of my home. What can I do for you?” asked the Rabbi.


The Abbot apologized for the intrusion and with great sadness in his voice asked if he might come inside to ask the Rabbi for his sage advice.


The Rabbi responded in graciousness: “Why of course, please come inside and make yourself as comfortable as possible.”


And as the Rabbi welcomed the Abbot into his small humble abode and into his most comfortable chair, the Rabbi then asked, “Please Abbot, How may I be of service to you today?”


The Abbot, thanking the Rabbi for his hospitality then began to recount a tale of woe. At one time his Monastery had been quite famous throughout the Western World. The monastery’s living quarters were filled with young aspirants and throughout the day as the Monk’s responded to the bells of the monastery one could hear the strong and melodic chants of its Monks. But hard times had come to the monastery. Young men no longer flocked there to nourish their spirits, the stream of young aspirants had dried up and the monastery had grown cold and dreary. The handful of monks left went about their work with very heavy hearts, disconnectedness and self-centeredness.


The Rabbi after hearing the Abbot’s story, offered, “Abbot I am extremely saddened to hear of what has transpired at your monastery. But what can I possibly offer to you in regards to advice? I know nothing of running a large monastery and my Synagogue here is quite small.”


The Abbot replied, “Rabbi, I have journeyed throughout the lands seeking counsel and wisdom from others to no avail. Yet over the last several nights after evening prayer, I felt God’s gentle presence and a small voice whispering, ‘the answers you have been seeking do not lie at a distance, they are very much within your sight if you would only look.’ As I pondered that whisper for many hours, I realized that your Synagogue was at a stone’s throw from our monastery and surely the Rabbi there would be a man of great wisdom. So I am here hoping that somehow you might offer me your advice on what others have been unable to help me with.”


The Rabbi answered, “Abbot I am humbled by your request. And strangely enough, just several nights ago I had a dream about your monastery, and in my mind’s eye a quiet message of, ‘the Messiah is there disguised, in their midst if they would only look’. As the dream has not come back, I have not thought of it since and I still cannot be sure that the whisper was telling me that the Messiah truly was in your monastery.”


The Abbot quite excitedly rose from the chair and profusely thanked the Rabbi for sharing his dream and his hospitality and indicated that he needed to get back to monastery as quickly as possible.


As the Abbot walked quickly to his monastery, his heart beat fast at the thought that the Messiah-the Messiah himself-had returned to earth and was right there in the monastery. How was it that he had failed to recognize him? And who could it possibly be? Brother Cook? Brother Treasurer? Brother Prior? Brother Gardner? Certainly not himself, he had far too many flaws and defects. But then the Rabbi had said that the Messiah was in disguise. Could those defects be one of his disguised? Come to think of it, everyone in the monastery had defects. And one of them had to be the Messiah!


Back in the monastery, he excitedly gathered his fellow monks and told them what he had discovered when visiting the Rabbi. The monks looked at one another in great disbelief. The Messiah? Here? Incredible! But he was supposed to be here in disguise. So maybe….What if it were so-and-so? Or the other one over there? Or…..


One thing was certain. If the Messiah was there in disguise, it was not likely that they would recognize him. So they took to treating everyone with great respect, kindness and consideration. “You never know,” they said to themselves and when they dealt with one another, “maybe he is the one.” The result of this was that the atmosphere in the monastery became vibrant with joy. Soon dozens of aspirants were seeking admission to the Order and once again the monastery echoed with the holy, joyful and full chant of the monks who were aglow with the spirit of love.


The moral of this story is clear….the only thing that changed in the monastery was a simple thought that the kingdom of God was within their walls and that simple thought changed everything. And you and I have that power as well. Just like Alice.


What we nurture and feed grows; the happiest people in the world are those who have figured out that seeking happiness can be quite elusive but being happy is about choice and intention and creating supporting practices that help us to love ourselves and when we feel good, we do good and in doing good we engage as fully as possible with our one wild and very precious life.


It is by free will that we choose, everyday, what story we tell ourselves and the world. Choose carefully, as the story we tell, most often, looks an awful like the lives we are living." – anonymous

1. GIVING: Do things for others

Caring about others is fundamental to our happiness. Helping other people is not only good for them and a great thing to do, it also makes us happier and healthier too. Giving also creates stronger connections between people and helps to build a happier society for everyone. And it's not all about money - we can also give our time, ideas and energy. So if you want to feel good, do good!


2. RELATING: Connect with people

Relationships are the most important overall contributor to happiness. People with strong and broad social relationships are happier, healthier and live longer. Close relationships with family and friends provide love, meaning, and support and increase our feelings of self worth. Broader networks bring a sense of belonging. So taking action to strengthen our relationships and create new connections is essential for happiness.


3. EXERCISING: Take care of your body

Our body and our mind are connected. Being active makes us happier as well as being good for our physical health. It instantly improves our mood and can even lift us out of a depression. We don't all need to run marathons - there are simple things we can all do to be more active each day. We can also boost our well being by unplugging from technology, getting outside and making sure we get enough sleep!


4. APPRECIATING: Notice the world around

Ever felt there must be more to life? Well good news, there is! And it's right here in front of us. We just need to stop and take notice. Learning to be more mindful and aware can do wonders for our well being in all areas of life - like our walk to work, the way we eat or our relationships. It helps us get in tune with our feelings and stops us dwelling on the past or worrying about the future - so we get more out of the day-to-day.


5. TRYING OUT: Keep learning new things

Learning affects our well being in lots of positive ways. It exposes us to new ideas and helps us stay curious and engaged. It also gives us a sense of accomplishment and helps boost our self-confidence and resilience. There are many ways to learn new things - not just through formal qualifications. We can share a skill with friends, join a club, learn to sing, play a new sport and so much more.


6. DIRECTION: Have goals to look forward to

Feeling good about the future is important for our happiness. We all need goals to motivate us and these need to be challenging enough to excite us, but also achievable. If we try to attempt the impossible this brings unnecessary stress. Choosing ambitious but realistic goals gives our lives direction and brings a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when we achieve them.


7. RESILIENCE: Find ways to bounce back

All of us have times of stress, loss, failure or trauma in our lives. But how we respond to these has a big impact on our well being. We often cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose our own attitude to what happens. In practice it's not always easy, but one of the most exciting findings from recent research is that resilience, like many other life skills, can be learned.


8. EMOTION: Take a positive approach

Positive emotions - like joy, gratitude, contentment, inspiration, and pride - are not just great at the time. Recent research shows that regularly experiencing them creates an 'upward spiral', helping to build our resources. So although we need to be realistic about life's ups and downs, it helps to focus on the good aspects of any situation - the glass half full rather than the glass half empty.


9. ACCEPTANCE: Be comfortable with who you are

No-one's perfect. But so often we compare our insides to other people's outsides. Dwelling on our flaws - what we're not rather than what we've got - makes it much harder to be happy. Learning to accept ourselves, warts and all, and being kinder to ourselves when things go wrong, increases our enjoyment of life, our resilience and our well-being. It also helps us accept others as they are.


10. MEANING: Be part of something bigger

People who have meaning and purpose in their lives are happier, feel more in control and get more out of what they do. They also experience less stress, anxiety and depression. But where do we find 'meaning and purpose'? It might be our religious faith, being a parent or doing a job that makes a difference. The answers vary for each of us but they all involve being connected to something bigger than ourselves.

©2018 by Greg Hiebert

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