The Happiness Summit: Four Religious Leaders Talk

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.


  1. Imagine a couple, the Smiths, John and Jane. John is 75, was vice-president of S-corp; he retired
    ten years ago after having always earned good money and with an excellent retirement package and
    plenty of savings and investments. Jane, 72, was a high school English teacher except for the 15
    years she spent as a full time mother raising the three kids. They’re both still in excellent
    health considering their age; they eat right, exercise, go to church regularly, do charitable
    work, travel-especially to visit the kids and 5 grandkids. They even participate in a Great Books
    discussion group. They seem happy and content, satisfied with their past, but concerned about
    what might happen to them in the next 10-15 years. Clearly, they’re a very fortunate couple
    having a successful old age and retirement. But are they flourishing? If not, What more could
    they be doing? If so, Is that all there is?

  2. Mel Konner says:

    Dear David,

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t personally see anything more like happiness than the two lives you describe. They have achieved everything meaningful and spiritually rewarding in life as I understand it. You ask: “Is that all there is?” I say, that is a huge amount, and I would not ask for more, for John and Jane or anyone else. Can I make them live forever? No. But can I urge them to look back on their lives with the utmost satisfaction, and to enjoy what is left to them (perhaps a lot in this day and age) with the full satisfaction of having done well by themselves and others? Yes. Have they flourished, and are they flourishing? A thousand times, yes.


  3. I expect that John and Jane would definitely answer as Mel has. But I think some people are definitely on a higher level than the Smiths. Simone de Beauvoir in the Second Sex makes the distinction between immanence and transcendence. This distinction perfectly captures my sense of what full flourishing involves. The Smiths’
    lives are all Fiddler on the Roof and no Man of La Mancha!

    To whom much is given, much is expected.—-Luke 12:48

  4. Mel Konner says:


    Okay, I definitely accept Luke 12:48, and therefore I might expect more from you or me than from Jane and John, which is not to say I am happier than they, or even flourishing more. From your website, you are accomplishing a lot. I guess in my way I am too. I am certainly not satisfied with myself, and to me flourishing means pushing my boundaries. But Don Quixote is a fool–an incredibly grand fool, but still a fool. Somewhere short of tilting at windmills there must be a way for each of us to do the best we can. Jane and John strike me as fulfilling their destiny. You and I might have a different one, which is not the same as saying it is better.

    Thanks for writing.


  5. Mel,

    I totally agree that flourishing is in the plural and relative to each individual: to be all that you can be! I’m less concerned with the emotional states and opinions of the individual and more concerned with their objective situation and accomplishments.


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