A Path to True Happiness
Between 1942 and 1945, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl labored in 4 different Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. During that time, his parents, his brother, and his pregnant wife all fell victim to the camps and died. As he starved and suffered next to his fellow inmates, he wondered how the human spirit could possibly survive such brutality and privation. One early morning pre-dawn, as the prisoners stumbled toward the day’s work, Frankl found himself thinking of his wife, who was incarcerated in another part of Auschwitz. He thought of his wife’s image, heard her answering him, saw her smile. He was transfixed by the thought that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which humans can aspire. He writes,
“I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. . . in a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.”
Frankl survived the camps, and went on to spend his life helping others find meaning, even in the face of great suffering, through the realization of their rich inner lives and the love each person is able to access.
Yesterday, I was a guest on the Unity.FM online radio show, “Spirit of Recovery”. That show, which deals with the intersection of Unity spirituality and 12-Step recovery, was a chance to look back at the spiritual journey which has essentially spanned my life, but which began in earnest with my sobriety over 15 years ago. The interview made me reflect on the things I was searching for desperately during all those years I was drinking – I thought I was in pursuit of happiness, of filling that God-shaped hole in my soul, through pleasure. But the path to happiness isn’t through the pursuit of pleasure.
There are many paths labeled “happiness” that take us to a far different destination. It seems to me that many of us have a somewhat warped idea of what happiness is, or at the very least, what it will take to bring it about. We used to equate it with “The American Dream”, that idea that we could all do better and achieve more than our parents; that we could all grow up to own a home, have a good job, and start a traditional family; that eventually we would retire and live out “our golden years” in comfort and ease, perhaps in Florida or Arizona, with grandchildren to spoil and bounce on our knees, and kids who were successful and independent.
Unfortunately, for more and more of us, this dream has become an illusion, one which we chase endlessly and fruitlessly, like a dog chasing a car down the street. But on that rare occasion when the dog actually catches the car, the truth is made all too clear. One listener to a podcast on career success wrote in, “I have a paid off house, plenty in retirement, savings to travel the world for years with our kids, and cash to spare – and have lost my passion to do anything.”
So, if neither hedonistic nor materialistic pursuits lead to genuine happiness, what is left?
The truth about true happiness is the same today as it was more than 60 years ago in Auschwitz: it is found through the pursuit of meaning, in the relationships we nurture, and the people whom we love.
Researchers from Psychology Today noted that our relationships with others not only make us happy, they also influence our long-term health as much as getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, and not smoking.” Of spiritual practice, Time.com noted, “A 2015 survey by researchers at the London School of Economics and the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands found that participating in a religious organization was the only social activity associated with sustained happiness—even more than volunteering for a charity, taking educational courses or participating in a political or community organization. It’s as if a sense of spirituality and an active, social religious practice were an effective vaccine against the virus of unhappiness.”
What is exciting to me in the wake of yesterday’s interview is the realization that two of the biggest influences in my life right now – 12 Step and Unity – are both sources of love, friendship and spiritual practice. By immersing myself in these spiritual organizations, I can not only be joyful in the happy times (like now), but I can survive the tough times through tapping into a more profound and transcendental meaning.
One of the primary spiritual practices that lead to a genuine happiness is forgiveness. Unforgiveness blocks our capacity to love, eats up our spiritual health with bitterness, and denies us access to our common humanity and meaning. Walking the (often difficult) path of forgiveness allows us to reach our hands out and touch a happiness too deep for words. This Sunday at Unity of Birmingham, we will be continuing our series on forgiving, inspired by Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s book, “The Book of Forgiving”. I hope you’ll join us at 11:00 AM for a look at more of what brings the lasting joy that is our soul’s deepest desire.