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Mary J. Loftus

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Top 10 Things Religious Leaders Say about Happiness

Posted: 11/06/10 10:36 AM ET

One of the things that most irritated me about Sunday school -- and there were many, including the fact that I had to wear tights, keep quiet and not ask why God wasn't a girl -- is that we were told, however covertly, that happiness was selfish.

Religion, I came to believe, was all about self-sacrifice. How could we be happy when babies in Angola were starving (or being sent to purgatory by the Pope)? How could we be happy when already we bent so readily toward sin? How could we be happy when we had to constantly be on guard against greed, pride, sloth, lust and gluttony (i.e., cool stuff, bragging, hanging around, casual sex and cookies)?

Come to find out at last week's "Summit on Happiness," hosted by Emory University's Center for the Study of Law and Religion, many of the world's religions have nothing against humans seeking to be happy.

Can I really ditch the guilt and go for the gusto?

According to spiritual leaders from the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist traditions, the answer is yes -- with a few conditions.

His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, the star of the show, has said that the very purpose of life is to be happy, so long as "one person or group does not seek happiness or glory at the expense of others." He didn't disappoint at the summit, sticking up for happiness as well as world peace at every opportunity, and laughing or chuckling fairly consistently throughout the event.

The Dalai Lama was joined on the panel by Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and Islamic scholar Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University.

They agreed wholeheartedly that faithfulness and happiness were not mutually exclusive.

Here are the top 10 things I learned about true spiritual happiness:

1. Happiness is radically subjective.

"How wrong Tolstoy was when he wrote in the beginning of Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike ... happiness isn't like that. It comes in many forms," Sacks said. "We are enriched by the sheer multiplicity of ways in which human beings have flourished."

2. Happiness, contrary to conventional wisdom, can't be purchased.

"The consumer society is constantly tempting us all the time to spend money we don't have to buy things we don't need for the sake of a happiness that won't last," Sacks said.

3. Happiness involves the mind and the body.

"It is important to us that God took physical form," said Jefferts Schori. "We are made in the image of God and reflect the divine. Our bodies are a blessing."

"This body is something precious," said the Dalai Lama. "It needs shelter, food and sleep. When the body is fit, mental function is more effective. But mental pain cannot be subdued by physical comfort."

4. Happiness is generated internally, not by fame or fortune.

"It is a happy human being who creates a happy ambience, a happy ambience does not necessarily create a happy human being," said Nasr.

"Real happiness must come from within," said the Dalai Lama. "When I say happiness, it is mainly in the sense of deep satisfaction."

5. Happiness can be found here on earth.

"God's presence and blessings can be found in the form of this-worldly 'goods.' Those goods include food, drink, shelter, clothing, liberty, peace, family, meaningful work, community and a general state of well-being," said Jefferts Schori.

6. Happiness occurs in communal celebration.

"To sit together, drink together, share one another's songs and stories, that is beautiful," said Sacks.

7. Happiness is not all about us.

"Jesus' ministry, his public work, is most essentially focused on feeding, healing and teaching people -- in that order," said Jefferts Schori. "Using the blessings of this world for the benefit of all."

"Once it was asked of a great Sufi master, 'What do you want?' and he said, 'I want not to want,'" said Nasr. "We must transcend the stifling prison of the ego."

8. Happiness can be developed through practice and repetition, prayer or meditation.

"The five daily prayers pull us out of time to a place that is sacred," said Nasr. "Punctuation in a life that goes faster and faster. During Ramadan, even the tempo of big cities slows down."

9. Happiness comes through perspective.

"When we face a sad thing, if you look very closely, it looks unbearable, but if you look from a distance, it is not that unbearable," said the Dalai Lama.

"Like Jacob wrestling with the angel," said Sacks, "I will not let go of the bad thing until I find the blessing."

10. Happiness can be found in beauty.

"There is a remarkable predominance of beauty in nature," said Nasr. "To be virtuous is to be beautiful. Our souls were created in beauty, we are drawn to beauty."

I'll admit that, deep in my soul, I knew that true happiness didn't come from selfish pursuits (see: the Grinch, Bernie Madoff). I will say, however, that I still distrust anyone who says happiness is a bad thing, and am reassured that even highly evolved and informed spiritual leaders believe that a bit of it can be found sipping Bordeaux at the beach with friends while watching the sun set -- awe and gratitude intact.

The Summit on Happiness is available for listening.

Mary J. Loftus is associate editor of Emory Magazine.