Great Ideas: Diligent Joy

I want to begin this morning by sharing a personal story that I am not particularly proud of. As with every personal story I share in this pulpit, it’s meant to invite you to reflect on similar stories that you may have in your own life, and to know that you are not alone, that we’re in this thing together.

The story has to do with graduate school. By sheer luck, I found myself in a program that specialized in classical American philosophers like William James, John Dewey, Charles Peirce, and George Santayana. I call it luck because it was not by any genuine forethought whatsoever that I went to Texas A&M University as an undergraduate, and it was desperation borne of restlessness that drove me to change my major time after time until, with philosophy, the restlessness became curiosity and even enthusiasm. But it was an enthusiasm for everything, and I really struggled with this—particularly after I was accepted into the graduate program and found myself facing the daunting task of writing a thesis. I needed to identify a specific topic to focus on, and quick. What was it going to be?

This is where I confess the part that I’m not proud of. I got way ahead of myself. I allowed ambition to solve the problem for me, rather than taking the more difficult route of listening to my life and discerning my genuine interests. I had aspirations of doing a Ph. D. at Vanderbilt University—I was told it was a prestigious department, and I had stars in my eyes about this—and it just so happened that the Head of the Texas A&M Philosophy Department at the time had strong links to Vanderbilt. The brilliant plan that unfolded in my prestige-addled brain was therefore this: I would choose a topic that would require me to work with the Head (which turned out to be George Santayana’s ethical theory), and this would be my ticket into the school of my dreams.

It did not work out. I ended up hating the topic I chose, and by the time I finished that thesis, I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. As for my relationship with the Head of the Department: not good. We were just not temperamentally suited for each other. Rather than moving me forward into my career as a philosopher, it set me back. Worst of all is the 20/20 hindsight I have now, many years later, about the treasure that was right there before me, all along, which I did not claim. This treasure: the world-renowned William James scholar who also taught in my department. William James, who has turned out to be one of my absolutely favorite thinkers—and I could have done my thesis on him. The thought had actually crossed my mind, but among other things, I suspected that the world-renowned scholar was too busy for me. Yet I never even inquired to find out if this were so. I missed my chance.

How easily it can happen. Ambition can put stars in our eyes, and we lose touch with who we are. Fixation on some end goal can cause us to stop paying attention to the journey, never mind enjoying it. Fear of being turned down can keep us simply from asking. Treasure is within our grasp, but we don’t go ahead and grasp it.
Why is this?

One of the things I value about Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis is that, through its unique blend of science and spirituality, it’s helping me better understand my own human heart , as well as to become a better student of happiness. Three of its insights—all from chapter five—come to mind.

The first is this: how it’s natural to care about such things as prestige. Desire for Vanderbilts of every kind reflect a deep impulse shaped by millions of years of natural selection, directed towards winning at the game of life; and it involves impressing others, gaining their admiration, and rising in relative rank. We all feel tempted to do this even when greater authentic happiness can be found elsewhere. Political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli recognized this hundreds of years ago when he said, “the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.”

Conspicuous consumption is an obvious example of this—the zero-sum game of “keeping up with the Joneses” that anchors the very real phenomenon of middle-class poverty—but I am particularly struck by the results of a recent experiment a group of economists set up using a beverage called SoBe Adrenaline Rush—a beverage that claims to increase mental acuity. The story here is told by Ori and Rom Brafman in their recent book, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior: “To test acuity, the researchers developed a thirty-minute word jumble challenge that was administered to three groups of students. The first group, a control group, took the test without drinking any SoBe. The second group was told about the intelligence-enhancing properties of SoBe, given the drink, and asked to watch a video while the tonic had time to take effect. These students also were required to sign an authorization form allowing the researchers to charge $2.89 to their university account…. We’ll call this second group of students the ‘fancy-schmancy SoBe’ drinkers. Finally, a third group of students was given the same spiel about SoBe but was told that the university had gotten a discount and that they would be charged eighty-nine cents for the drink. We’ll call them the ‘cheapo SoBe’ drinkers. Now, the results of the experiment were surprising. The group that drank the fancy-schmancy SoBe performed slightly better in the test than did the group that received no SoBe at all. But before we rush out to buy SoBe, with its acuity-enhancing powers, it’s important to note that the students who drank the cheapo SoBe performed significantly worse than either the fancy-schmancy group or the SoBe-free control group. Given that exactly the same SoBe beverage was served to both groups, we can only conclude that it was the value the students attributed to the SoBe that made the difference in their test scores. Strange as it may sound, fancy-schmancy SoBe made the students smarter, while cheapo SoBe hindered their performance.” And that’s the story that Ori and Rom Brafman tell. Humans are deeply susceptible to the power of prestige—so much so that we unconsciously, instinctively respond to fancy-shmancy SoBe by getting smarter and to cheapo SoBe by getting dumber. This is how vulnerable we are to the lure of prestige.

Again and again, we learn that the human heart is a complicated thing, and may we embrace this with compassion. We learn that each of us is many different selves all buzzing about like a committee—sometimes on the same page, and sometimes not. Where prestige is concerned, we can often find ourselves internally divided; and we can feel a great pull towards what is fancy-schmancy even though it may come at the expense of our true happiness.

But now, let’s turn to the second happiness insight: how people are generally inaccurate predictors of the ultimate impact of life changes, whether bad or good. In my own case, I anticipated going to Vanderbilt for my Ph.D. as a change that would bring about perfect happiness; but life would be over if I didn’t get in. This is what I predicted, and on this basis, I acted. All of us do something like this, as we face the future. Yet Jonathan Haidt asks us to consider the “adaptation principle,” which describes something we have all experienced—that people get used to conditions in their life that are constant. It becomes like wallpaper: taken for granted, just there. While people are extraordinarily sensitive to changes in conditions, after a time things settle down, and we are back to our usual state of happiness.

Jonathan Haidt explores this in an interesting way. He asks, “If I gave you ten seconds to name the very best and very worst things that could ever happen to you, you might well come up with these: winning a 20-million dollar lottery jackpot and becoming paralyzed from the neck down. Winning the lottery would bring freedom from so many cares and limitations; it would enable you to pursue your dreams, help others, and live in comfort…. Losing the use of your body, on the other hand, would bring more limitations than life in prison. You’d have to give up on nearly all your goals and dreams, forget about sex, and depend on other people for help with eating and bathroom functions. Many people think they would rather be dead than paraplegic. But they are mistaken.” They are mistaken, Jonathan Haidt says, because of the adaptation principle. “The [lottery] winner’s pleasure comes from rising in wealth, not from standing still at a high level, and after a few months the new comforts have become the new baseline of daily life. The winner takes them for granted and has no way to rise even further. Even worse: the money might damage her relationships. Friends, relatives, swindlers, and sobbing strangers swarm around lottery winners, suing them, sucking up to them, demanding a share of the wealth. […] At the other extreme, the quadriplegic takes a huge happiness loss up front. He thinks his life is over, and it hurts to give up everything he once hoped for. But like the lottery winner, his mind is sensitive more to changes than to absolute levels, so after a few months he has begun adapting to his new situation and is setting more modest goals. He discovers that physical therapy can expand his abilities. He has nowhere to go but up.”

This is the adaptation principle at work. Life changes can definitely bring pleasure or pain, but the pain or pleasure never lasts as long as you think it will, and we return to our natural and usual state of mind. I didn’t get in to Vanderbilt; OK, there was some weeping and gnashing of the teeth for a time; but then I got on with my life. My prediction about the impact of not getting in was way off base. I adapted, and moved on.
Which leads us to the next happiness insight to consider: that most environmental and demographic factors influence happiness very little. “Try to imagine yourself,” says Jonathan Haidt, “changing places with either Bob or Mary. Bob is thirty-five years old, single, white, attractive, and athletic. He earns $100,000 a year and lives in sunny California. He is highly intellectual, and he spends his free time reading and going to museums. Mary and her husband live in snowy Buffalo, New York, where they earn a combined income of $40,000. Mary is sixty-five years old, black, overweight, and plain in appearance. She is highly sociable, and she spends her free time mostly in activities related to her church. She is on dialysis for kidney problems.” Now, the question: who do you think is happier? Bob or Mary? On the surface of things, Bob, since he enjoys a string of what many would consider markers of power and privilege: he’s white, he’s male, he’s young, he lives in a beautiful climate, he’s attractive, and he’s wealthy. Yet it’s intriguing to get beneath the surface and take a look at what the research says. “White Americans are freed from many of the hassles and indignities that affect black Americans, yet, on the average, they are only very slightly happier.” “Men have more freedom and power than women, yet they are not on average any happier.” The old are generally happier than the young. “People who live in colder climates expect people who live in California to be happier, but they are wrong.” “People believe that attractive people are happier than unattractive people, but they, too, are wrong.” As for wealth—research shows that once people have sufficient money to pay for basic needs of food and shelter, the relationship between wealth and happiness grows smaller. At this point, more money definitely does not mean more happiness. Consider how it is that “as the level of wealth has doubled or tripled in the last fifty years in many industrialized nations, the levels of happiness and satisfaction in life that people report have not changed, and depression has actually become more common.” For all of this, chalk things up to the adaptation principle. All of these markers of power and privilege are life conditions that you either can’t change or which are constant for significant periods of time. And we get used to them. They become wallpaper in our lives. They disappear from our awareness. We take them for granted.

And there they are: the three insights. (1) Natural selection attunes us to prestige even at the expense of genuine, long-lasting happiness; ( 2) people are inaccurate predictors of the impact of life changes to happiness; and (3) most environmental and demographic factors influence happiness very little. Happiness is not so simple a thing. The human heart is not so simple to figure out.

But now, putting these insights together: where does it take us, especially as we consider the new year ahead of us, with all its new possibilities?

One thing does stand out. Go back to Mary. We met her a moment ago; she and her husband live in snowy Buffalo, New York, where they earn a combined income of $40,000. By now, we know that all such factors are fairly equivalent to Bob’s, in terms of their power to influence happiness in life. This includes the fact of her being sixty-five years old, black, overweight, being plain in appearance, and being on dialysis for kidney problems. All such factors are constants in her life, and she has adapted to them.

Yet there are two advantages she has which Bob does not, which give her the clear  happiness edge, and here is the clue we are looking for. She is highly sociable, and she spends her free time mostly in activities related to her church. Research has shown both factors to have great impact on a person’s level of happiness, and part of the reason for this is that they are not so much constant conditions of life as voluntary activities that people choose to engage in. Because of this—because they take effort and attention—they aren’t susceptible to the adaptation effect.

One of the main things we can do, in other words, if we want to increase our happiness, is to invest time and energy in activities that lead to genuine gratification in some form or fashion. Sometimes, we are talking about activities which allow us to lose self-consciousness, connect with and express our strengths, and get into the flow of things. Other times, it can be activities that require some effort and yet the result is wonderful, as in exercise, or learning a new skill, or kindness and gratitude activities, or volunteer service. Such activities can make you feel vulnerable—you are putting yourself out there, after all—but once you do them, the good feelings last a long time.

In my case, what happened after the Vanderbilt disaster was this. Three kinds of activities that came together for me and ultimately helped me find myself again.

After I finished my thesis and defended it successfully, a week before I was to have graduated, I got a call from the community college across town, Blinn College. Would I like to teach a logic class? All my future plans were up in smoke, so why not? I took to that field, and like the sons in the Sufi wisdom story we heard earlier, I gave myself to daily labor, and to the round of the seasons. One class grew into three; three grew into five and a full-time permanent position; but most importantly, I discovered my passion for public speaking and teaching, and I realized that, for me, philosophy of religion was the bomb.

I was discovering the treasure of the field, my happiness; and it was also happening at the Unitarian Universalist congregation I started going to, with Laura, once our daughter was born. I took to that field, and I gave myself to various opportunities that arose. I served as President of the Board of Trustees; I led some fundraising programs; I led some worship and taught a few religious education courses. Through volunteerism, I was discovering talents that I didn’t know I had. And, I was also making friends.

Which leads me to the third activity which helped me recover after the Vanderbilt disaster. Figure skating. Down in College Station, Texas, at the Unitarian Church, I met my future ice-dancing partner. It all came as quite a shock. Part of this has to do with the fact that, when I met Diane in 1996, I hadn’t skated since I was a boy of 13, and last I knew, serious figure skating was just for children and teenagers. Yet what I did not know was that, during my many years away from the sport, a significant adult skating program had developed, including regional, national, and international competitions. Diane knew all about it—and did I want to go skating with her? At first I resisted—one excuse after another came to mind—but Diane and then Laura kept on prodding me, and so, eventually, I went.

As it turns out, this was the final ingredient. I took to the field of teaching, I took to the field of church volunteerism, I took to the field of adult figure skating; and as I gave myself to all three activities, some kind of weird alchemy happened, and I found a clarity within me which I had never had before. I found a yearning to combine passion for public speaking and teaching and community building and leadership and artistry and spirituality all in one thing, and that thing was ministry. I would become a minister. That was the treasure in the field that I found, but only after giving myself to years of hard work, day to day and season to season.

“I prayed for twenty years,” Frederick Douglass once said, “but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” The treasure is out there, in the field, and it’s not about prestige, it’s not about the things we can’t control, it’s not about the constant conditions to which we inevitably adapt. It’s about activity, action, praying with your legs.

And this time, I did not let fear stop me from talking to the people I needed to talk to, and doing the things I needed to do. I even turned down an offer to attend fancy-schmancy Harvard Divinity School—with funding—to go to one that was better suited to my family and me.

When one of my friends heard this, he sent me a funny postcard featuring an orangutan wearing one of those square academic caps, with the tassel on the side. And this was the caption: WHAT? You haven’t been to HARVARD?” I laughed. OK by me.

Story Before the Sermon
There once was a farmer who lay on his deathbed in despair over the fate of his lazy sons. When he was almost gone, an inspiration came to him. He called his sons to his bedside and drew them in close. “I am soon to leave this world,” he whispered. “I want you to know that I have left a treasure of gold for you. I have hidden it out in the field. Dig carefully and well and you will find it. I ask only that you share it among yourselves evenly.”

The sons begged him to tell them exactly where he had buried it, but the father breathed his last and said no more.

As soon as their father was buried, the sons took up their shovels and began to turn over the soil in their father’s field. They dug and dug until they had turned over the whole field twice. Nothing–no treasure anywhere. But they decided that since the field was so well prepared, they might as well plant some grain just as their father had done. The crop grew well for them. After the harvest they decided to dig again in hopes of finally finding the hidden treasure. Again they found nothing, and once again prepared the field for sowing. That year’s crop was even better than the one before.

This went on for years until the sons had grown accustomed to the cycles of the seasons and the rewards of working together in daily labor. By that time their disciplined farming earned them enough money to live very comfortable lives. They grew very close and content. They had everything they could ever want or need. It was then and only then, that they realized what a great treasure their father had left for them out in that field.