Spruiked as the leading forum on human happiness in the world, the conference was attended by over 2,000 people from a wide range of backgrounds. The speakers included an eclectic mix of experts on the psychology of happiness, Buddhist luminaries, and a swag of prominent media personalities, including Wendy Harmer, Norman Swan, Julie McCrossin, Steve Biddulph, and Michael Carr-Gregg. Sessions covered the science of happiness, emotional wellbeing, suffering, money, work, altruism, children and education. There was something for everyone: baffling science, profound insights and practical wisdom, cheesy asides, political correctness, witty exchanges, and much more.
To give one example, Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert argued that, contrary to popular opinion, children don’t make you happy. He explained amusingly that we only think they do. Like Armani socks, they cost so much that we think they must be worth it. Like heroin, they do give pleasure, but only in a manner that severely curtails the rest of your life. And like a baseball game with no hits except a home run on the last ball, they provide moments of delight that make you forget the long stretches in between.
A range of definitions about what constitutes happiness kept the delegates guessing just how happy they were. Dr Martin Seligman, a pioneer of positive psychology gave the fullest, defining happiness in terms of three things: positive emotion – the pleasant life; positive character – the engaged life; and positive institutions (clubs, churches, governments, etc) – the meaningful life. To Seligman at least, happiness is more than subjective wellbeing, but includes the experiences of having an absorbing purpose in life and serving something bigger than yourself. The concept of happiness then overlaps with notions of life satisfaction and contentment.
Jesus did appear, but only in a sentence comparing him to the Dalai Lama
Interestingly, holiness was never far from the discussion. This holiness was not of the Jewish or Christian sort, but in the frequent allusions to last year’s main speaker, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Rev Bill Crews, described by the Sydney Morning Herald as the token Christian, participated in a panel discussion on love and compassion. Crews avoided any mention of God, preferring to speak of people thanking ‘Existence.’ Jesus did appear, but only in a sentence comparing him to the Dalai Lama.
When learning that I was going to attend the conference, Christian friends gave me little encouragement: ‘I want to be holy not happy’; ‘I’m too busy to worry about being happy’; ‘The Bible doesn’t say much about happiness, does it?’ ‘What has happiness got to do with being a Christian?’ After enjoying a heady couple of days, I was left scratching my head:
Is seeking happiness self-defeating, like trying hard to get a good night’s sleep?
Why were over 80% of those in attendance women? Aren’t men interested in being happy?
Does Christianity have anything significant to say about happiness?
Are those ministers right who tell us that in the Bible love is not a feeling but an act of the will, joy is not an emotion but an attitude, peace is not a subjective experience but only an objective fact?
If money can’t buy happiness, as all the speakers insisted, why do most people still seek it as if it does?
If part of the Buddhist answer to being happy is to be free of desire, is self-denial and taking up one’s cross the Christian response? Is the education and redirection of desire also part of the answer?
Ought people expect to be happy? If the happy life is about purpose and meaning, don’t Christians have something important to say?
Does ‘blessed’ mean happy? Is God the happy God, as C.S. Lewis believed?
In my view Christianity has more to say about happiness than many of us seem to think. Watch this space for more reflections on the theme.
Dr Brian Rosner is a CPX Fellow and teaches New Testament and Ethics at Moore Theological College. He is the author of Beyond Greed and the editor of the recently published Consolations of Theology