Are You Happy?

One auspicious day in my life, I was able to be present to the teaching of the Dalai Lama.

Previously, I had studied his teachings on Tibetan Buddhism and the practical methods of increasing one’s capacity for behaving with compassion toward other human beings through the practice of meditation. It was this pragmatic angle that first attracted me to his teaching, and his affiliation with Emory University as a visiting professor provided me the rare opportunity to receive that teaching “live and in person”.

The most important thing that I remember about his hours of teaching and answering questions was a very simple statement: All people desire happiness.

All people want to be happy.

The common connector between all people is this basic wish…I want to be happy.

The implications of that basic connection to all human beings gave me something to center myself in as I was forming my own being in the world. What if I approached each person that I encountered as having this basic need? Everyone that I come in contact with was looking to find happiness. Could that serve as a hermeneutical key as I sought to understand others? In fact, it became a prompt that drove my curiosity in engaging with people that I had difficulty understanding their motivation.

The obvious question follows: What will make one happy?

As an infant, an emerging developing being, there are some basic needs, such as nourishment, touch, and warmth. But very quickly, we are given signals from our parents, our community, and culture, as to what we need to be happy. Pause, if you will, and think back on the messages you were given, consciously and unconsciously. Initially, parental approval takes center stage. Soon, the school setting takes prominence with its own system of demands, control, and rewards. The creative child must negotiate the various spheres of experience, learning along the way what works and what does not. We call this the socialization process, resulting in the adaptive ego that provides a vehicle for our self. That ego provides us the means by which to survive this process, readying us to embark on adulthood. We celebrate the survival, but it comes at a high cost.

As a society, we have studied this childhood process extensively, with the underlying motivation of understanding how it works, how we might better the pricess, often with an underlying reason of finding out how we might control it. Jean Piaget looked to research the development of the cognitive structures of thinking. Erik Erikson boldly tried to track and stage the psychosocial interaction between the child/teen/adult within the context of community. Development is a complex mystery that we mere mortals grasp at understanding.

One particular study grew out of that rich environment of human developmental research and study, the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Begun in 1938, it impressively has studied carefully the lives of 724 men over the course of 85 years. The study followed 268 Harvard College sophomores, and 456 boys from Boston’s hard-knock inner city. I was fascinated to learn that, while subjects remain anonymous, it has been revealed that John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradley were participants. While this originally was a limited study demographically, particularly gender limited, the group was added to by including spouses and later children, now consisting of a couple thousand subjects. It is currently focused in its study on Baby Boomers, the children of the original group.

The research uses questionnaires, personal interviews, medical records, scans of blood and brains. The study monitored the physical and mental health of the subjects, their work lives, their friendships, and romances. The unique piece of the study is the longitudinal style. It is the only study of such length and offers some unique insights into human adulthood.

I remember looking at the study when I was working at the Center for Faith Development, prompted by Jim Fowler who had been familiar with it during his work at Harvard. This week, the current director, Dr. Bob Walberger, released a book of the current findings from the study. The title is The Good Life, and attempts to draw out the lessons that were learned through the years of study.


The basic message is that the key to experiencing the “good life” is found simply in the quality of relationships. If you have significant relationships with people that you feel a deep connection with, you will tend to be happy, which is shown to affect one’s health and, in fact, one’s longevity. These relationships can be romantic in nature, but can be friendships, collegial, or simply social. The key seems to be your sense that you could count on this person, that they “have your back”.The defining question is: who could you call in the middle of the night, and they would be there for you? Many people simply could not name a soul.

The magic of these relationships is that they can provide a break from the normal stress of life. It allows you to return to an equilibrium even in the face of major stress. Dr. Waldinger calls it a stress regulator, breaking the cycle of fight-or-flight reactivity and the body’s response of inflamation. The data is overwhelmingly clear as to the positive health role of these close, positive relationships. Other research shows that we are currently in a time of significantly increased loneliness and isolation, rendering us vulnerable to disease. The prescription is to make relationships a priority, and invest time and energy in paying attention to the state of your relationships.

This came home to me in a surprising way during Christmas. I came down with the flu on Christmas Eve, which took me out of my normal family gathering. Not only was I physically sick, not feeling well, but I was missing out on my connections. I found myself experiencing some depression after a couple of weeks of isolation, an unfamiliar situation as I am normally with a good number of close friends daily. Most are collegial relationships but I pride myself on the level of intimacy we share. I was suddenly and profoundly feeling alone. It was not a good pace to be.

Now, as an introvert, I get recharged by taking time to be by myself. The key distinction I discovered was that I was choosing to spend that alone time. It’s what Thomas Merton talks about as solitude, as you get time to be alone with your Self and God. It is a cherished time for me, and was particularly true when I was overly active in the parish ministry. Solitude is something that I value highly and make sure that I get on a regular basis.

But, when it is not “chosen’, but is rather imposed, it feels awful. It is experienced as loneliness, isolated, disconnected. This was a powerful learning moment for me. And about the same time that I was straightening out my soul, I came across this report from Dr. Waldinger. That was a wonderful moment of synchronicity for me. I am grateful.

Dr. Waldinger suggests that you begin to address your relationship situation by taking an inventory. Who would you name as that person that you could call in the middle of the night? Be honest with yourself. Who would you include in your intimate circle of friends? Who are the people you connect with on a regular basis? Make a clear assessment of where you are with your relationships. I have found it helpful to make a visual chart of my relational matrix which has added some clarity to my current situation.

The good news is that, regardless of current deficiencies, you can improve your situation with some focus and prioritization of nurturing your relationships. Who is an old friend that you have lost touch with? Make a commitment to send a note or make a call to reconnect in the next week. Make a list of such folks and invest the time in building those relationships. By making relationships a priority, you are doing yourself a favor as well as reconnecting with people who will find value the contact and the connection. Maybe you might join me in becoming more intentional in your connections in this coming year. “Connection” is my word for 2023.

I was always encouraged by my mother to make friends with others. I think her admonition may have added that it would make Jesus happy if I was friendly to others. How odd to find out that such behavior may in fact yield the benefit of health and longevity, not to mention being happy along the way. I can almost see Jesus smiling…or is that a laugh?

4 thoughts on “Are You Happy?

    1. Thanks, Fred. You came to my mind as I was writing this. You are a master at making connections and my sense was that you were indeed happy.
      Were you a part of the 1938 study, with your buddy, Jack?

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  1. All People want to be Happy!

    Some twenty-five years ago I learned an exercise from our mutual friend Charlie Palmgren. He calls it ‘The Purpose Game’ and I’ve used in hundreds of times in my workshops between 1995 and 2015. You start with splitting the group present in dyads. If the number of participants was uneven, I became an element of one dyad. One person of each dyad had to choose the label A, this way the other person got the label B. .

    The rules of the Purpose Game are simple and the same for each dyad:

    Person A mentions an activity he regularly performs at free will. Person B paraphrases that statement and person A confirms. Then person B asks person A: What is the purpose for doing that [for you]? Person A answers that question. Person B verifies if Person A explains why he or she performs that action. Person A has to stay within her or his realm; so can’t drift away to another person to which she or he is connected.

    Let’s say? David, that you are person A and I person B in our dyad and your statement sounds as : I [David] writes regularly blogs on South of God. I paraphrase and you confirm that I have listened correctly. I ask you then: “What is your purpose for doing that, David? And suppose you say: “This way I give some of my experiences and thoughts to those who read them” Then I would reply: “And what is your purpose for that, dear David?” Which question you answers with integrity. On that answer I respond something like “And what is your purpose for that, David?” And the game goes on until I (B) catches you (A) of repeating a similar answer [which means that you (A) are are paraphrasing yourself]?

    That last answer is penciled down and Person A becomes B and vice versa & the Purpose Game is played one more time. When all the dyads are done, I asked what they had penciled down. All had something like : “Because that gives me happiness “or “It gives me peace” or “That way, I feel good in my skin/about myself.” Indeed, All People want to be Happy!

    I suggest you play that game once with Fred Smith 

    As being said, I’ve played that game many, many times and practically always the final answer boiled to: “I want to be happy!” Once there a was a priest, he was not Episcopalian but nearly, who persisted and paraphrased : “I do this to make the other happy?” I took over and asked the priest “What means that to you, father (that the other is happy)?” and he admitted: “That makes me happy”. “Does that mean that this makes me selfish?” He asked me. I replied: “No father, this means that you are Human.”

    Someone can seldom be happy for a long time ‘on her or his own’. We need other people in order to be happy. In your words we need connection. My fourth father said to me once, replying my question of how he had survived in an isolation cell in a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia [Paul de Blot SJ was a fragile person who died some years ago at the age of 95]? His answer: “Friendship, Johan!”

    dr. Jur. Jacques Viaene taught me at the Catholic University Leuven, in 1978 that regarding connections, the quality of them are of extreme importance. I’ve used his metaphor a thousand times. He drew two circles on the whiteboard and connected the left one with the right one with three connection lines. In the left circle I wrote ME and in the right one THE OTHER. Above the upper connection line, who had no arrows, he wrote a big 0 (zero), above the middle connection line with an arrow at the left, he wrote a big – (minus) and above the bottom connection line, who had two arrows, one on either side, he wrote a big + (plus).

    His explanation:
    • the transfer of pain via the 0 connection line, between people who say I don’t really care about the Other (the indifferent people): when the other feels pain, I feel nothing, since minus multiplied zero is zero. No feelings at all…
    • the transfer of pain via the – connection line, between people who say we hate each other, when the Other feels pain, I feel joy, since minus multiplied minus is plus. (once an SiBeEng always a SiBeEng).
    • the transfer of pain via the + connection line, between people who really love each other, when the Other feels pain, I feel pain, since minus multiplied plus is minus.

    Three days before her death my mother told me that she was ready to die and that it wouldn’t be a great loss, since she longed to be reunited with my father (my mother was very religious and I never went against her belief that she would be reunited with my father who had died some five years before). Three days later I got a phone call of one of my sisters, mother was death, a ‘sudden death’ (what she’d always hoped for). She had her wish, without great loss, my minus was tremendous! Why ? Because our connection line was extremely positive her loss was amplified… a zillion times.

    So be aware, David, the more positive the connection, the greater the joy (when something goes right) and the greater the pain (when something goes wrong).

    Paul Simon seems to have another mindset 

    When something goes wrong
    I’m the first to admit it
    I’m the first to admit it
    But the last one to know
    When something goes right
    Well it’s likely to lose me
    It’s apt to confuse me
    It’s such an unusual sight
    I can’t get used to something so right

    Have care and take care, David!

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