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Are the psychologists right about happiness? (Sermon for July 31)

Money can’t buy happiness. If we took a poll of people here at church, or even from the general public, we’d probably have a solid majority of people agreeing with this statement. Yet, if we believe the sociologists, it seems that at least some money is able to buy a good deal of happiness.

We’ve probably all heard the horror stories of lottery winners who go bankrupt or go on to experience terrible tragedies. Or the celebrities whose lives are textbook examples of sordid misery. Being very, very rich does not seem, at least based on anecdotal evidence, to make people happy. However, sociologists and psychologists report to show a connection between income and happiness, at least to a point. People with higher incomes consistently report higher general life satisfaction. According to one study, after about $75,000 per year the “happiness returns” of higher incomes start diminishing, and after $200,000, more income does not seem to be related to greater happiness. So it seems that while being truly wealthy does not increase people’s happiness, at least getting into the middle class does.

So what is going on here? Is the idea that money can’t buy happiness just another piece of erroneous folk wisdom? Scientists are notoriously bad at designing studies to prove or disprove abstract philosophical or theological concepts. (For example, for decades, neurologists have claimed that a series of experiments conducted in the 1980s called the Libet Experiments debunked the notion of human free will. Except that Libet wasn’t studying free will at all, but rather the desire to perform a meaningless action – pushing a button.) The bigger question here really is – what is happiness?

A common claim in this regard is that money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy a lot of things that make the pursuit of happiness possible. That is, people with middle to higher incomes experience less stress because of greater financial security. They have access to better health care and psychological counseling to help them cope when things are tough.

However, we ought to ask ourselves: Is this actually what happiness is? Is happiness a lack of stress about paying the bills? Is happiness security and stability? Or could the human heart be made for something greater than stable, bourgeois life?

Such a miscalculation is behind the error of the rich man in our Lord’s parable today. If he had been asked to participate in one of these income/happiness studies, he probably would have reported a very high degree of life satisfaction after telling himself to “rest, eat, drink, and be merry.” After expressing his confidence in his material well-being, though, “God said to him,

‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you.’”

The word that St. Luke uses here for “demanded” is the language of calling in a debt. The rich man has made an enormous error in calculating his net worth. He has tallied up one side of the balance sheet – his assets, represented principally by the “bountiful harvest” his land has just produced – but he has forgotten the other side – his debts. He has forgotten that his very life, and indeed all that he has received, are gifts from God over which he is not entitled to claim absolute ownership.

How can we avoid making a similar miscalculation? Christ concludes this parable by exhorting us: “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” So what is it that matters to God?

First and foremost, God desires charity. Charity is the theological term we use for love rightly conceived, love as the self-sacrificial gift of oneself to others in imitation of Christ pouring out His life for us on the Cross. Sacrificing ourselves out of love for another is the source of authentic richness.

Closely related to charity is mercy. God emphasizes in the Scriptures His desire to see Christ’s followers be merciful. This is present in our kindness towards others, in a merciful and forgiving spirit and, in trying to presume the best in others.

The story of the rich man’s barns is told as a warning against greed. One way that we can check our tendency to greed is by also guarding against the spiritual evil of pride. The rich man’s barns are a warning to a man who feels slighted by his brother receiving a greater portion of the inheritance. Being that person who is always experiencing wounded pride, who always has some kind of gripe against others, who wears out the patience of friends and loved ones with endless tales of being mistreated – this is a heart in which greed can easily grow. When we cultivate this spirit of entitlement, we are not far from the rich man who thinks himself entitled to the bountiful harvest and forgets his enormous debt to the origin of all good things.

Charity and humility, then, move those who have experienced the bountiful harvest of their own labors – and the labors of many others that have accumulated to them – to recognize God as the ultimate origin of their material blessings, and to return thanks to God through merciful generosity. But greed is not only a vice of the rich, and material wealth is not evil. We cannot judge a person based on his or her material possessions. The sin of greed is present not in owning many things, but in spending wealth primarily on our pleasure and comfort rather than spending it for the sake of love: for the love of others and of God.

Greed is present not only in those who spend their money for their own sake, but also in those who cultivate a disproportionate desire for material possessions, whether they currently have them or not. It is present in unjust economic systems that remove the incentive to work and thus to benefit society, which end not in the re-distribution of wealth but in establishing the equality of shared destitution. Greed is present in a tendency to grant more and more social and economic entitlements, which eventually give the State an oversized role in people’s lives, threatening Faith and the centrality of the family in society.

Greed is also present in the culture of the disposable. The next time you’re at the grocery store, consider how much shelf-space is devoted to disposable items. There are meters of K-cups, and only a small section of actual coffee beans. There are more types of sanitizing wipes than you can keep track of, but few of those spray and refill bottles that cost much less. Our greedy society, possessed of more wealth than could ever have been imagined by the rich man in the Gospel today, has convinced us that disposable conveniences are essential components of everyone’s lives, from the top to the bottom of the economic ladder. And these disposable conveniences, the products of societal greed, have replaced what was good in our lives with poor substitutes, as anyone who hasn’t forgotten what actual coffee tastes like, can hopefully still tell you.

This greed that brings about the culture of the disposable does not only crank up our grocery bills and overflow our landfills, as bad as those two things are. Worse yet is the damage they do to the soul of the human person. When everything in our life is disposable, it is little wonder that a greedy world sees human life as disposable too.

Seeing so much greed and pride in the world around us, it is easy to be tempted to despair. You might not be able to change the products on the shelves at the grocery store, but you can change the way that you interact with the world. You can choose which influences of greed to allow into your life and that of your family and which ones you can choose to resist. This week, I invite you to take up these two challenges:

First, ask yourself, “If I were going to design a survey to see if people were happy, what would I ask?” And then, “Does that line up with God’s vision of happiness?”

Next, pick one thing that the world tells us is essential that you can actually do without, something that requires that you do things a little differently, and offer it as a penance for the materialism and the greed you’ve experienced in the past, asking God to free you from attachment to this world in order to run more freely to Him in the next. After all, what we really need is not bigger barns, but bigger hearts.

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson

Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen

XVIII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXII


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