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 FeminismAndReligion.com. 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.
8 thoughts on “Spirituality and Happiness by Gina Messina”
Very important questions. Having lived in a village where there are few shopping opps for a number of years, I have weaned myself pretty much from the shopping obsession (but will it start again when I move?). I have more than enough stuff to last me for the rest of my life (with the exception of clothes and bedding which do wear out). I have also realized (sadly) that having “the perfect house” does not create happiness. On my fb I get postings on travel to Greece. People often begin: I am coming for 10 days and want to see Athens, Mykonos, Santorini, and another island or two. As you say, this can be just another form of conspicuous consumption. 10 days is hardly enough to get to know even one place. Good for you for giving away your bags and hopefully not buying more. We all need to have a good think about what really matters.
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Carol, I am so grateful for you taking the time to share your thoughts; you are always so affirming. These last few years have been a real journey for me with lots of ups and downs. I’ve really taken a step back from social media – although I recognize the many ways it can be valuable. This blog was created with the idea that social media offers an opportunity to connect women and men who might not otherwise interact, create voice for those often silenced, and expand dialogue while breaking down power structures. But like everything, we (society in general) seem to fail when it comes to “balance” — another word I hate. It is really a more of ebb and flow.
Single motherhood has changed everything for me. I think about you often and fondly. I also wonder if my experiences are similar to some of yours throughout your journey. I sometimes ask myself “What Would Carol Do?” I appreciate the path you have paved for so many of us and through your example I see light. My gratitude to you always — and I’m sorry I don’t always take the time to say it. Sending you much love and positive energy.
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It’s wonderful that you’re teaching a course that you will learn from as much as your students. I have enough f everything for the rest of my life (except fro socks and maybe underwear), and in fact, have been gifting at Christmas time from my closet.
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Nancy, Thanks so much for sharing and I love your Christmas strategy. These last two years I’ve focused on making Christmas gifts. I think that when we take the time and make the effort to create something it demonstrates our love far more than a gift card or trinket. AND it helps me to challenge Christmas as just another way for corporations to make money. I’ve been trying really hard to focus on the meaning of the holiday rather than the greed that has consumed it.
I always greatly appreciate that you post and comment, even if I get behind and don’t comment back. I’m grateful for your voice in this community.
Excellent and thoughtful post! You’ve clearly explained why I find the social media dangerous. I do email, of course, but I hardly ever go to my FB page, much less any of those other media that I don’t even belong to.
Interesting about your handbags. With me, it’s been earrings. But I think I’m about done buying earrings because I’m tired of spending the money.
Your list of questions are going to have me thinking all day. Brava!
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Barbara, as I said to Nancy, I am so grateful for your voice in the FAR community. You always take the time to comment and affirm ideas. You are so supportive and truly a mentor. Like you, I have really stepped back from social media. I haven’t been on FB in months. Although I did share this post on my page — which I think is a bit ironic.
I appreciate that you shared about your earring collection. We all have something. On FB most share images and posts about having a perfect life that is not real. I am grateful for the times we can just be honest about who we are, what are struggles are, and support one another.
You will have to let me know what you come up with in relation to the questions I’ve posed. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Sending you positive energy always. :)
Thank you, Gina, what an interesting post. Interesting how the things we attach ourselves to, to try to lift our spirits, can become burdens. I do know that many people nowadays can’t practice “minimalism” because they are too poor to risk needing to buy everything again rather than try to hold onto it “just in case.” So I try to be aware of the privilege of the “minimalist” movement even while I try to understand how a mentality of scarcity does not help me, and a mentality of abundance does. I reach toward a theology of abundance, but my fears get in the way. Learning to love those fears and have compassion for them has been a long and educational process. Thanks for this post, helping me see thee ideas in new ways as well, and reminding me to think about this issue more intentionally again.