Though some writers distinguish joy from happiness—one being an emotion that is often fleeting while the other is a way of living that we willfully embrace—they are both wonderful and we often touch them in meaningful ways at Christmastime and year’s end.
There is a downward trend in happiness according to the World Happiness Report (written by a group of international professors in support of the United Nations’ efforts to pursue global harmony). We see similar trends through increased use of antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications, especially among young people. Experts in the field suggest that only about 10% of happiness comes from life circumstances, while 50% comes from genetics and 40% from choices we make. In a recent article, “Happiness: An Intentional Act,” by Ashley Wohlgemuth, director of Children and Family Services for Catholic Charities in Kansas City, she references research studies that report statistical swings in happiness and offers behaviors and patterns that produce more joy-filled lives. This holy season of new life and grace is a perfect time to receive joyous moments and embrace a happier temperament.
I suppose the most important part of all this is not to place blame on our circumstances. You and I know plenty of poor people who possess a much happier nature than their rich counterparts and some with horrible health conditions that are more grateful than others that embody perfect health. Ignatian Spirituality teaches indifference, i.e., it shouldn’t matter whether we are rich or poor, healthy or ill, beautiful or plain, short and fat or tall and thin, old or young, living in a large city amidst constant activity or in a deserted place, married with children or single and celibate, surrounded with fame and fortune or dwelling on the streets. Such circumstances have little to do with being engaged with God or being happy. Maybe we can blame it on our parents, since we blame most everything else on them, and since genetics is, in fact, the major determinate of our emotional disposition. But in spite of what was dealt us at birth, through spiritual indifference we have a lot to say about our decision to be happy.
End of the year encounters can help. Amidst the joyful holiday commotion of parties, gifts, games, cards, decorations, carols, Christmas trees, holiday lights, calories from eggnog, cookies, candies, and cakes, festive sweaters, socks, and PJs, a visit to grandparents, a visit by Santa, a visit from Father Time, cigars and champagne, we will come across a crèche. In that iconic scene that heralds the primary message of the season, we see a baby child with His arms outstretched on the wood of a crib: a foretelling that one day His arms would be outstretched on the wood of a cross. We ought to take a fair amount of time gazing at it. In that posture of openness, I believe we will find the key to our own happiness: open arms, open doors, open hearts, and the embrace of our Savior from birth to death.
Happiness is found not in the circumstances that are given to us, or that we create, but in the manner by which we address those circumstances. People who express gratitude are happier than those that don’t. So be open to showing your gratitude this holiday season in words, hugs, kisses, notes and smiles. People who spend time with others who share similar values tend to be happier than those who don’t. So be open to welcoming others into your house, going to church and sitting beside others who worship God in song and praise, visiting those in nursing homes or other places where residents who cannot connect with seasonal fun and folly on their own might want to do so. People who help others are happier than those who don’t. So be open to the hundreds of daily opportunities to make someone else’s life a little better by a kind gesture, encouraging word, helping hand, small gift, or simple smile. People who are mindful—those who stop and smell the roses—are happier than those who unintentionally rush through their days. So be open to pausing before a Nativity Scene, benevolently gazing at the wonder of our enfleshed God and the magnificent nature we share, or other marvels in your path. Finally, be open to relaxing in a favored chair with a journal and warm drink, maybe near a fireplace, with holiday music playing; reflect upon this year as it comes to an end and gets laid to rest. Jot down a few memories of what has transpired in ’19 as well as some hopes for what lies ahead as we flip the page to 2020.
Open up to Christ, all the joy that surrounds you, and the happiness that lies before you. Capture the fleeting, joyous moments of this holy season and let them inspire you to be happy.