There is a lot of talk about happiness these days. It is true that we often pay a high price in the first world for our affluence and high levels of comfort and convenience and often happiness and peace of mind is part of the price.
I often feel sad for students whose lives seem blighted so early by stress and anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia on their steep path to success. The days of scholarly leisure, when one had time to read for pleasure and explore one’s own ordinary problems and questions about life and identity, seem long gone. Academia has become driven and students caught up in qualifications rather than education. Our recent Meditatio Seminar on Science addressed this disturbing question for our modern culture.
Not surprisingly then, where there is a gap a product appears to fill it. Happiness is now often presented as a commodity we can acquire by doing this course, buying that device, taking time to trek Everest or buy a subscription to more cable TV Channels. Lifestyle sections of newspapers brim over with expert advice and consumer spiritualities, on how to get the most out of life. They offer enviable role models whose expensive smiles lure us into imitation.
Sometimes even poor old Christianity, with less glamour but great earnestness, suggests that believing this, giving up that and, of course, coming to church, will be the answer to being happy again. It may have on the whole a better product but usually its marketing only works because it is so bad. In a world of glib glamour and high media standards the church stands out at least for being, well, different.
I notice people look up when they are told that meditation does not solve your problems. If you are in debt before you sit down to meditate you will still be in debt after meditating. Maybe they are glimpsing another reason for doing something other than the reason they have been persuaded is the natural one. That conventional reason is self-interest and self-fulfilment.
How do we market the timeless truth that happiness comes to those who are expanding their consciousness beyond the ego, not inflating the ego? The inflated ego in pursuit of happiness is the saddest fate of all. How do we remember the obvious, that happiness comes to those who are concerned about the well-being of others?
Maybe some of the skilful means we have been trying during Lent have sharpened this perception for us. If so, they will also have helped prepare us for what the coming days, in the sacred game of the liturgical season, will teach us about the secret of happiness.