A Happy Christmas
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” John 3:16-17
It has been a dramatic and traumatic year – for the world, our country, and the school, but I have written about this before and, honestly, I don’t want to talk about it anymore – I want some happy news. I suspect many of you will feel the same. We need a different message as we look forward to Christmas. The Christian foundation of St John’s College intends a change of heart, a re-birth that liberates us from the failings and grief of the past to intentional and positive transformation. The annually repeated plea from pastors and priests around the world to de-materialize Christmas too often becomes an inert cliché. Every year we are reminded that Christmas is not about self-indulgent gluttony, but about a ‘preferential option for the poor’ – a Biblical impetus to favour the victims of disproportionate greed and power – and rightly so. And yet, every year, the frenzied buying of things we don’t need continues. It almost feels as if we are trying to buy a moment of happiness. This introduces a new thought. To ‘want’ happiness is surely a good thing, especially now. Perhaps we’re just trying to buy it in the wrong places and for the wrong reasons.
Some years ago, in USA Today (12 August 2002), Marilyn Elias reported that psychologists now know what makes people happy. According to this research; “… the happiest people surround themselves with family and friends, don’t care about keeping up with the Joneses, lose themselves in daily activities and, most important, forgive easily.” Since we are in the Christmas season, University of Illinois psychologist, Ed Diener says; “…the December holidays are friend and family oriented … [and that] life satisfaction occurs most often when people are engaged in absorbing activities that cause them to forget themselves, lose track of time, and reduce anxiety.” More focused research has since revealed that some aspects of happiness are frequently misunderstood. Inasmuch as the abovementioned factors, together with peace, harmony, and gratification are important, there are deeper dimensions to consider.
The first of these is the degree to which we experience life intensely. Curiously, intense experiences need not be pleasing, comfortable, or easy, but may come from a sense of fulfilment that issues from long, hard, and sometimes agonising tasks - even those that are emotionally painful. This kind of happiness is associated with personal senses of meaning, value, and worth derived from the quality of our personhood – the knowledge that our lives matter and that we are doing something worthwhile to make the world a better place – and not just for ourselves. Intense experiences, therefore, make us more authentically happy in the longer term than temporary or superficial pleasures.
The second is connectedness. This is about much more than familial and relational sociability. Connectedness refers to the extent in which we can integrate, take into ourselves, and live ourselves into the lives of others. It is therefore closely aligned to empathy and compassion – not just sympathising or commiserating with others but encountering them within ourselves in the extent to which our being is affected by them. This sounds counter-intuitive – how can connecting inwardly with the joy and sorrow of others make us happy? Jesus praying to His Father in John 17:23 says; “I in them and you in me - so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” A sense of personal validity and authenticity comes when we are taken seriously and when we are genuinely understood and accepted for who we are. It is the honest recognition that “I am because you are”. It is, in essence, the experience of love. If we are afraid of inner pain and try to avoid it, we will be proportionately distanced from love. Love, more than anything, is the truest source of real happiness - and it is the most expensive if it is sincere.
The third is flow. Flow is a term coined by Claremont Graduate University psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheeks-sent-mee-hi) to describe this phenomenon. He says that; “People in flow may be sewing up a storm, doing brain surgery, playing a musical instrument, or working on a hard puzzle with their children.” The impact is the same - a life which includes a variety of activities in flow is likely to be a happier life. A multiplicity of endeavours - between work, leisure, hobby, spirituality, relationships, and values must all cohere to enhance a directionality of purpose. This does not necessarily mean ‘compatible’ undertakings, but variously dynamic and vitalising activities that collectively move us toward more wholesome senses of fulfilment and identity.
Finally, mindfulness conveys an awareness of what is going on within us, immediately around us, and in the world at large in ways that lead to inner understanding. To feel estranged from our inner and outer worlds is tantamount to isolation and despair. Mindfulness is, if you will, a form of contemplative awareness that centres us and leads to wisdom amidst the world’s chaos. Mindfulness can therefore be a form of prayer – a meditative and considered openness to the world in ways that enables us to hold our broken world in love. Wise people are seldom unhappy.
A universally accepted definition of happiness has always eluded us, but perhaps a consideration of intense experiences, connectedness, flow, and mindfulness might help us to access less ephemeral and more lasting and meaningful happiness.
This Christmas the words of Jesus in John 3:16-17 challenge us as to where we locate our source of happiness; “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Intense experiences, connectedness, flow, and mindfulness are deeply implicated in this passage if we read it carefully. The process of salvation can never be exclusive – the intensity of God’s love conveyed in this passage includes all dimensions of our being - physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Moreover, salvation can only be legitimate if it includes the freeing love of God to connect all people with justice and equity, and this is the flow of grace which can never harbour prejudice, discrimination, or bigotry in the world’s variety. If we are deeply mindful of these ideals, then the proclamation of salvation in John 3:16 might just become a source of happiness beyond our imagining.
With God’s blessing for a truly HAPPY Christmas.
Fr Jeremy Jacobs, Chaplain