'Happiness is the purpose of life': Presiding bishop joins Dalai Lama, chief rabbi on interfaith panel

October 17, 2010

Their religious traditions are different, but they all agree on one thing – true happiness is the purpose of life.

"Happiness is about right relationships; with God, with the self, and with the other," Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, one of four panelists, said Oct. 17 during an interfaith summit, "Understanding and Promoting Happiness in Today's Society," at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University in Atlanta.

Besides the presiding bishop, the panel included His Holiness the Dalai Lama; Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth, based in the U.K.; and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor at George Washington University and renowned Islamic scholar. The panel was moderated by Krista Tippett, host of the public radio show Being, formerly called Speaking of Faith.

"Happiness means using the blessings of the world for the benefit of all," Jefferts Schori said. "None of us can be truly happy unless all are happy. In the reign of God, when God rules, when all are in right relationships, we will find the greatest happiness."

Sacks noted today's consumer society where "we spend money we don't have to buy things we don't need to make us happy."

But instead of increasing happiness, the consumer society "has become the most efficient way to manufacture and distribute unhappiness," he said.

"If I have a certain amount of money and power and give some to you, I have less," he said. "If I have love and happiness and give some to you, I have more.

"Spiritual happiness is the world's greatest renewable energy," Sacks said. "We make more of it by giving it away."

Nasr agreed that true happiness does not come from accumulating things. "Today's consumer culture says that happiness is wanting and having more and more. The Sufi master, when asked what he wanted, replied, 'I want not to want.'"

"True happiness comes from within," the Dalai Lama agreed.

However, the physical aspects of happiness should not be neglected, both Jefferts Schori and Sacks said.

"I'm struck that happiness is both physical and mental," Jefferts Schori said. "In Christianity, bodies are of utmost importance. The incarnation teaches us that our bodies are a blessing.

"Part of happiness is having our bodily needs satisfied. Having enough to eat, having shelter, having meaningful work.

"There is an understanding that all existence is a prayer, that there are blessings in each moment of the day. Washing the dishes, putting the body to work, all is a blessing. The simple awareness of God's presence in every moment, every encounter, every challenge is happiness."

The physical dimension of the spiritual life in Judaism can be found in one word – food, Sacks said with a laugh.

"The heart of all Jewish festivals can be summed up like this. 'They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat,'" he said.

Tippett commented that the beaming Dalai Lama seems to be "the embodiment of happiness," yet noted that he is familiar with suffering and hardships in his life. How does happiness encompass suffering and hardships, she asked.

"If you spend a few days with me, you may experience my sadness and even my anger," the Dalai Lama said with a smile.

"Of course, my life has not been easy," he said. "When I see problems and great tragedies I always look for something positive that may come out of it.

"Sometimes when you look at tragedy very closely it looks unbearable. But if you can look from a distance, you can bear it."

Happiness does not preclude suffering, Jefferts Schori and Sacks agreed.

In the midst of suffering there is an insistence on justice, Jefferts Schori said. "Sometimes suffering becomes the route to happiness for the larger community.

"The goal is a fully restored creation in right relationship with all that is. We must demand, insist on the blessing in the midst of suffering."

Sacks admitted that "if you read Jewish literature and history, happiness is not the first word that comes to mind.

"And yet, somehow when the suffering is over we get together and celebrate. A Jew is one who struggles with God and humanity. Jacob said when he struggled with the angel, 'I will not let go until you bless me.'

"That's what I feel about suffering," he said. "I will not let go of it until I understand the blessing. Pain can lead you to a higher and deeper joy."

Tippett questioned if American culture has been wrong in defining happiness as a right.

Absolutely not, Jefferts Schori said. "Happiness is not just a right, but a duty for the whole creation. We are to pursue happiness on behalf of all creation."

The Dalai Lama said that happiness is the purpose of life. "The very purpose of our existence is for happiness."

But Sacks warned that sometimes people may be so intent on pursuing happiness that they don't recognize or enjoy it when it appears.

"Happiness doesn't always come from a pursuit," he said. "Sometimes it comes when we least expect it."

The purpose of the Sabbath is to stop and enjoy the blessings we have, he said. "We're so busy chasing after happiness and blessings. Sometimes we just need to pause and let our blessings catch up with us."

During the summit's second day, Oct. 18, Jefferts Schori is presenting and discussing "The Pursuit of Happiness in the Christian Tradition: Goal and Journey." Other presenters include Sacks; Nasr; and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, photographer and author.

The interfaith summit on happiness is the culmination of a five-year project by Emory's Center for the Study of Law and Religion on the ancient ideal of the pursuit of happiness.