A positive path for spiritual living

The Science of Happiness

Last month I introduced the book we are using for our annual fall series; Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard. As it turns out, this topic has recently started to get more attention from the scientific community.

Dr. Steven Novella is a clinical neurologist and assistant professor at the Yale school of medicine who publishes a blog called Neurologica. On September 8, 2017 the topic was “How People Thrive” which started with the following observation; “There is a science to happiness and to what we might call thriving (sometimes called flourishing) – not just surviving, but being happy and fulfilled.”

He goes on to summarize the findings of a paper published on September 7 in the journal European Psychologist reviewing scientific literature discussing human thriving and here are some of the key factors associated with happiness. A person is more likely to identify as happy or flourishing if they are; optimistic, spiritual or religious, someone who enjoys learning, flexible and socially competent.

In addition, happy people report that they have; opportunity, employer/family/other support,
challenges and difficulties that are at manageable level and a calm environment. We need challenges to thrive but not at an overwhelming level. We also need some kind of community infrastructure.

Dr. Novella summarizes the key factors as follows: “…we like to feel that we have a purpose, that we are challenged but not too much, and that we have the skills, support, and opportunity to meet that challenge.” He also offers a cautionary note: “Interestingly, the description of people who are vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist organizations are those who lack … a sense of control, competence, and an opportunity to succeed. This breeds resentment, depression, even desperation.”

Note the things not on that list which are conspicuous by their absence. Material possessions, wealth and social status do not correlate with greater happiness. Money and possessions are necessary for survival but beyond that do not increase happiness. Jesus seemed to know as much when he insisted that wealth and possessions were an impediment to that state of thriving and flourishing he called “The Kingdom of Heaven” which was something we could have here and now rather than a reward after death.

It is obviously not as simple as just saying “don’t worry, be happy” and not very complicated either. As our fall series book study will demonstrate, happiness or thriving is a skill we can learn and develop. It starts with resisting the temptation to surround ourselves with material possessions and instead look for the things that provide meaning and purpose.

Also remember the importance of a community with a purpose. Ours is to teach people how to thrive in a changing world. Even if you already have a supportive family and work environment, the more resources the better, especially those specializing in spiritual pursuits.