A course on happiness at Harvard University is the most popular class in the nation right now. It is taught by Tal Ben-Shahar who also wrote the book Happier based on his curriculum. “What does it mean to be happy?” seems to be the question that many are asking these days as we are accumulating more with less fulfillment. Perhaps the question we should be asking is, “what does it mean to have what we need?”
We wake up each morning thinking that we do not have enough — not enough sleep, not enough time, not enough money, etc. We have fed into the media messaging that we need more and that a gluttonous life is a good life. We want the bigger house, the new car, the walk in closet filled with the latest fashion, and high dollar skin care products so we can escape aging.
I am guilty of succumbing to the predatory marketing practices. I’ve openly admitted to having an unhealthy obsession with handbags. I had assembled quite the collection over the years. Each had its own dust bag and I kept them stuffed with tissue paper to maintain their form. They lined my closet and occasionally I would stop to admire them. Sometimes I switched bags based on what would work best with my outfit, or hold my laptop, or what would put the least weight on my shoulder. For a while, they were a source of pride.
As I had found myself swept up in the happiness question, I realized that the beautiful, well constructed bags that I had collected did not increase my quality of life; in fact, they did little more than add clutter to my closet. Thus, it begs the question, why did I want them in the first place?
Before being inundated with a 24 hour media cycle, our lives were different. I recognize the danger of nostalgia; I am not claiming our past to be better than our present. Rather, that our interactions were different and we aspired to different goals. The documentary Generation Wealth explores this pointing out that we used to compare ourselves to our neighbors; however now most of us don’t know our neighbors and instead compare ourselves to the Kardashians. The result? A society obsessed with fame and wealth that has led us on a downward spiral to feel inadequate and become wasteful, individualistic, and lost.
New movements like minimalism call to our attention that things do not make us happy and encourage a focus on experiences. It is a good message; but for many having experiences means high cost travel, spending a year abroad, or going on excursions that challenge one’s physical abilities. Even “glamping” is a thing now. I appreciate the opportunity to take a vacation as much as the next; my concern is the excess that has become our society’s focus in recent years and the lack of fulfillment in our lives.
What is missing in the question about happiness is how it is directly connected to our spirituality. The idea of needing wealth and fame has left us spiritually bankrupt; seeking connection in superficial ways that gives us no value. While many of us are challenged with theological questions, generally it is understood that our source of divine power is not found within materialism, but a willingness to recognize our shared experiences across humanity and our intertwining relationship with all of creation.
Dualism has developed false narratives and power structures that place male over female and the spiritual over nature. However, spirituality should not be understood as focusing on a world to come; but rather as the meaning and purpose in our lives and how they connect to our relationships. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown explains that spirituality is “recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.”
Overwhelmed with the all consuming media messages about needing more, we often forget to take a step back and consider what our purpose is and where we find meaning. Our relationships have shifted from face to face interactions to social media posts. We have become a disconnected generation caught up in the rat race. It is no wonder that we concerned about what it means to be happy.
I’m teaching a new course this semester that I created to explore questions about our spirituality and fulfillment. Our first goal will be to write a mission statement for ourselves. I wonder, if we each had our own mission statement to refer back to, how might it change our daily focus and interactions?
Other questions I think we should be asking include:
- How might our relationships change and how might we think about ourselves differently without social media?
- What would it mean to have enough in our lives?
- Can we recognize that our neighbor’s happiness is interconnected with our own happiness?
- How can we define spirituality for ourselves and use that as a guiding force in our pursuit of a meaningful life that is socially responsible?
Considering these questions, I decided to let go of my handbag collection — well, most of them, it’s a process. I packed them up and sent them to a recycled fashion site and am attempting to be mindful of my spending using the Japanese budget method kakeibo. I’m trying.
Materialism only provides synthetic happiness; a fleeting moment that leads us back to wanting something else. If we really want to be happy, we need to start asking questions about our own participation in a system that leaves us in a perpetual state of yearning.
Gina Messina, Ph.D. is an American feminist scholar, Catholic theologian, activist, and mom. She serves as Associate Professor and Department Chair of Religious Studies at Ursuline College and is co-founder of . She has written for the Huffington Post and is author or editor of five books including Jesus in the White House: Make Humanity Great Againand Women Religion Revolution. Messina is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences and on national platforms including appearances on MSNBC, Tavis Smiley, NPR and the TEDx stage. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives of women around the globe. Messina is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing. Connect with her on Twitter @GMessinaPhD, Instagram: @GinaMessinaPhD, Facebook, and her website ginamessina.com.