In pursuit of happiness

June 19, 2013

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(Christian Week – June 2013)

KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ The Lord is my Shepherd, the Psalmist wrote, and I lack no good thing. The waters are still and I’m not afraid. How can I be? My cup overflows with goodness and mercy. Even when nothing goes my way and hell itself threatens, I’m at peace with myself and the world. I am, for lack of better words, happy.

Of course, we’re not happy. Not really. This is the very nature of it, this life, this nagging feeling that there has to be more. We’re created in the depth of our cells to feel this uneasy yearning, because this world, after all, is not the end, not our real home as much as a fleeting shadowland.

But it’s a different discontentment, a self-inflicted “dis-ease,” that the psalmist speaks against so eloquently. I was reminded of it when recently at a staff meeting of a Ugandan university newspaper, listening to young writers who, in the view of their Ugandan manager, needed encouragement to get on with it and improve their work habits.

“Every generation has its ways,” is how he gently put it, alluding to the wrongness of wanting something for nothing. I asked the group some questions. And how the answers came.

“People used to have a midlife crisis when they’re 45. We have them a lot younger,” said a 23-year-old. The car and the bank account and the house are what she feels anxious about. It’s all just not coming fast enough. “I feel like I’m in crisis now.”

You might imagine this sort of talk and head-nodding from places with more resources than a developing African nation. But entitlement issues don’t have borders.

More strikingly, these young professionals then spoke candidly about how they’re uninterested in actually working for their desires, and no, they don’t need to be told there’s anything wrong with not pulling their weight. “I have an answer for everything,” is how one young woman plainly put it.

It was a remarkable perspective on work-life balance, especially at a Christian university. All I could offer for advice was the parable of the talents, a reminder to any of us that we’re very accountable to do what we can with whatever we’re given.

Ignore it and find one problem or another, if not divine anger. The servant who buried his talents was not only publicly shamed, but his original gift was taken and given to another, one who already had more than enough and who, it’s assumed, was content for his state of being, not his growing windfall.

As Richard Layard, of the London School of Economics puts it, “We have more food, more clothes, more cars, bigger houses, more central heating, more foreign holidays, a shorter working week, nice work, and above all, better health. Yet we aren’t happier.”

Sociologists and pollsters are taking a closer look at these things. The “happy poor” are one demographic. People in the slums of Calcutta are found to be almost as happy as a typical university student, and happier than some people on the streets of richer western cities, people who may not have social and emotional attachments, and people often left – like my Ugandan newspaper friends – comparing themselves to others with more.

Also, places that score highest in these new “happiest country” indexes, like the Scandinavian nations, score high for citizens trusting each other.

This is it: earthly trust. How much more when trusting the Divine? Trust and obey is how the old song goes. For there’s no other way. To be happy . . .

About Thomas Froese

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June 19, 2013 • Posted in ,
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