Melvin Konner M.D. Ph.D.

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...Since the causes of human nature are not a one-way street, I also want to know how changes in our environment make their impact on us--how advances in biology and medicine change how we think about our lives. My knowledge and experience have often led me to comment publicly on medical ethics, health care reform, child care, child welfare, and other policy questions, and I will do that here as well.
You are here: Home The Happiness Summit: Four Religious Leaders Talk

The Happiness Summit: Four Religious Leaders Talk

November 12th, 2010

Religious summit finds happiness in relationships and even in suffering.

dalai-lama-emoryLast month at Emory (my university), the Dalai Lama was the center of a conversation-a “summit,” according to the press-on happiness. Also included were a Presiding Episcopal Bishop, the Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, and a famed Islamic scholar. None of them said anything about mood, and several denied that happiness has much to do with pleasure.

The Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, defined it as “using the blessings of the world for the benefit of all…None of us can be truly happy unless all are happy.” If she’s right about that, then, alas, none of us is truly happy. But she clarified this a bit, making it more attainable: “In the reign of God, when God rules, when all are in right relationships, we will find the greatest happiness.”

She also said she is “struck that happiness is both physical and mental. In Christianity, bodies are of utmost importance. The incarnation teaches us that our bodies are a blessing. Part of happiness is having our bodily needs satisfied. Having enough to eat, having shelter, having meaningful work.” And yet we understand, “that all existence is a prayer, that there are blessings in each moment of the day. Washing the dishes, putting the body to work, all is a blessing. The simple awareness of God’s presence in every moment, every encounter, every challenge is happiness.”

The Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, joked at one point that when you study Jewish literature and history, “happiness is not the first word that comes to mind.” But he noted that there are two Hebrew words for happiness: osher, which refers to a kind of individual happiness, and simcha, which is the happiness shared with others-the latter being the best and most important.

He also defined what happiness isn’t: “We spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to make us happy.” But far from increasing happiness, this is “the most efficient way to manufacture and distribute unhappiness. If I have a certain amount of money and power and give some to you, I have less. If I have love and happiness and give some to you, I have more. Spiritual happiness is the world’s greatest renewable energy.”

This sounded a bit like a song learned in preschool: Like a “magic penny,” “Love is something, if you give it away, you end up having more.” But then, it’s been aptly said that everything important we need to know, we learned in kindergarten.

The Islamic scholar, Prof. Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University, also immediately delved deeper than any notion about mood or pleasure. He pointed out that the Arabic word for “beauty” is the same as the word for “virtue” or “moral goodness,” with the implication that this is where happiness lies.

He also said that in the Quran, the word for happiness “is identified with the state of paradise. We never leave the pursuit of happiness, which in itself means that we are not really made for this world alone. Every happiness that we seek outside of spiritual happiness comes to an end, and the ending is always sadness.” In contrast to this pursuit, life’s main goal is self-discovery. “Once we know who we are, we are happy. But very few people in the world know who they are.”

The Dalai Lama must surely be among them. Krista Tippett of National Public Radio was the moderator, and she asked him how he can be happy while he and the Tibetan people are suffering. “Of course, my life wasn’t easy,” he said. “We lost our country. It’s sad, but that brings different and new opportunities.” Happiness can come out of tragedy, and “our life depends on hope, hope for better…Happiness does not come from the sky. Happiness must be created within us and our family.”

Although one thinks of Tibetan Buddhism as suggesting that happiness comes from within, through individual meditation and the overcoming of suffering, the Dalai Lama’s view that “happiness must be created within us and our family” suggests more, and it seems to correspond to both forms of happiness that Rabbi Sacks alluded to.

Surely the Dalai Lama’s ability to encourage and spread happiness among his own and other peoples suggests a convergence with Bishop Schori’s “right relationships” and Prof. Nasr’s “moral goodness.” As Rabbi Sacks said, directly addressing the Dalai Lama, “If we could only learn one thing from you, which is how to laugh the way you do, I think we’d increase the happiness in the world,”

Or as Helen Keller put it, “Life is full of suffering, but it is also full of the overcoming of it.” From the hands of a great soul who was both blind and deaf in her body, the core of the secret we are all seeking.

Note: By invitation, I’ve started a blog on the Psychology Today website, and my latest post can be read there or here, although different comments may be  posted there.

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