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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 g