Are relationships are an important element in our happiness?
I have written about many factors that people have identified as contributing to happiness. One such factor is the quality of our relationships. This is one on which experts disagree. I will explain why later. But first things first.
What do I mean by ‘relationships’?
Nowadays, we often use this word when we mean ‘sexual relationships’. Other possibilities are work, business and family and friendships. Whilst it is important to look after business and other aspects of our lives, family relationships are the ones the experts think matter most in this context. But don’t neglect the other ones. I was temped to write ‘invest in people’. However, I am aware of an oganisation of that name which gives accreditation to businesses for good personnel policies and practices. I don’t want to confuse you.
What do I mean by ‘invest’?
You can invest money. You can also invest time and effort. Where relationships are concerned, time and effort are what we most need to invest, although money may come into it. It is about priorities. We can get so obsessed with other things that families and friends get … well, not forgotten, but you know what I mean. When you are old, you are unlikely to say ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office’. You could find you have got out of touch with everyone you used to know.
Controversial? Who thinks relationships aren’t factors in happiness?
It seems some of us are natural introverts, recluses even. Such people find relationships are hard work. I mean, harder than they are for everyone else. Following this advice, for them could be stressful. Some people are happier to be left alone. Is that in their best interests? Unfortunately, they often want to be alone only some of the time. Other times they do want company. If you are one, don’t leave it too late to invest in people, or you will become a total recluse. You may have to make an effort.
Another way to happiness that I have recently read about is giving thanks. For Christians this usually means thanking God. Not a bad idea. But I am talking about thanking people.
Isn’t it just good manners?
I am not talking about saying ‘thankyou’ every day, whenever someone does something helpful. Of course, I hope you do. What I am talking about is making an effort to thank people who have helped you in the past.
Someone who gave you confidence
Someone who gave you useful advice
Do you remember them? Are you in touch? Could you write to them, letting them know how helpful they have been? It may be worth a little effort.
Do I thank people in this way?
This is something I have never thought about until recently. I have read that remembering to thank people in this way can add to your happiness as well as theirs. How does that work? I don’t know but I think I might try it. What have I got to lose? What about you?
Here is another aspect of the issue of churchgoing.
Many people do not realise that their choice of church can be really important. It is all too easy to assume they are all more or less the same. If you are not happy in the one you have been going to, you cannot see how you would benefit by simply going to a different one, whether of the same denomination or not.
What’s different about another church?
If you are aware that churches differ, you might be under the impression it is all about doctrine. That is the exact set of beliefs each church follows. Surely that was the reason for all the different denominations? Did they not break away from each other due to disagreement on certain things? Yes, and No!
Often small differences got blown up out of proportion. Sometimes the issue was not so much belief about God or the Bible, but about organisation. Some were more democratic than others, but that has largely changed, although the details of governance are different from one denomination to another. Usually, these points are of more concern to the clergy than to the man or woman in the pew.
As to differences of belief, you are likely to find as wide a variety of views within most churches as between them, on all but the basic essentials.
What matters to you for your churchgoing?
Have I contradicted myself? Did I say the choice of church was important, only to go on to say it is not? What I mean is that the difference between two churches of the same denomination can be as great as between denominations. What is more important for most of is not the finer points of doctrine, it is more down to earth. Literally. Do be prepared to look at churches belonging to different denominations, unless you have a strong reason for keeping to the same one.
The things you need to ask yourself when choosing a church are not what its official view is on interpreting a particular verse of the Bible, think rather about the following points.
What kind of music do they use?
How formal are the services?
Is the preaching interesting and relevant?
Are there other opportunities to learn about the Bible or the faith?
What arrangements are there for children and teenagers?
How pleasant is the overall experience?
What activities are there, apart from Sunday worship?
How do they engage with the community?
If you look, you will be surprised how varied churches are. You need not be a square peg in a round hole. Seek and ye shall find!
Would a catastrophe destroy your happiness forever?
I have written several blogs about happiness. Such as How much happiness can money buy. Some people want to know if anything I have said would be any use in the face of a catastrophe. I am not thinking of the everyday sort of thing that makes some people overreact (especially journalists in a quiet month) such as:
A festival being cancelled
A wet bank holiday
An increase in VAT
Losing the car keys
I mean the big stuff like the Grenfell fire, the Manchester bomb, floods in Africa. At a personal level too, a serious accident or illness, or the loss of someone you love, can be very hard to deal with. Such things make most of my previous suggestions seem trite. Remember?
‘Count your blessings’
‘Do good to someone’
‘Enjoy the good things around you’
Does this make these things wrong? Part of the problem is that almost anything you say to someone at a time like that is going to sound trite. It is unlikely that it will be original. An expression becomes a cliche through being used a lot. It is used a lot because so many people find it helpful.
However useless so much advice may be, it can not be right for anyone to just give in and be bitter for the rest of his or her life.
How have I coped with catastrophes?
I have so far been relatively fortunate and am in no position to advise others from my own experience. Fortunately, I don’t have to. I can draw on the experience of lots of people. There is no simple answer that works every time. Different people find different ways of coping.
Does religion help deal with a catastrophe?
Research does show that for many religion is a help. Prayer, meditation, or the love that comes from other members of your church, mosque, synagogue or whatever. But let us be honest. It is not always so. Some people give up their faith when bad things happen, blaming God. Similarly, some people are glad of their friends in times of trouble, but others turn against their friends.
For those for whom no religion seems to be the answer, the ones who cope best with catastrophe are often the ones with some sort of philosophy to fall back on. This may be an organised philosophy or just a way of looking at life. A simple maxim to call on. ‘Keep calm and carry on’ or ‘things are never as bad as they look’, for instance. It is good to have one ready in case you need it.
How one man coped with a real catastrophe
I have been reading the letters and diaries of my father-in-law, including those written when he was a prisoner of war after being wounded at Monte Cassino. His resilience and optimism, his ability to make light of his troubles, his sympathy for those worse off than himself (!) make me feel ashamed. What kept him going? I have not found any mentio of prayer of faith, although I need to study his writings a bit more, but I think it was the hope that our side would win in the end. When I have finished studying these documents, I intend to turn them into a book. There is a story that needs to be told.
What about you?
To all the factors making for happiness, add something you can call upon in the event of a catastrophe. Most of us have to face one sometime.
I met a woman the other day who no longer goes to church because her husband works away from home all week, so their Saturdays and Sundays are precious. She does however get involved with other activities run by her local church, such as fundraisers and social events. I was pleased. I hope others regard her as a member of their church.
Am I ignoring what the Bible says about Sundays?
I know keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments and that the early church used to meet on the first day of the week, meaning Sundays. I also know Jesus said “The Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath“. The Christian life is not about fitting in with someone else’s timetable. It is about faith, love, truth and your relationship with God and with other people. Those things ought to be part of all of our lives, 24/7.
Let’s be realistic
Nowadays, when so many of us have different lifestyles and commitments, I hope all churches will make it easier for people to get involved any time they can. Let’s not get obsessed with worshiping on Sundays. Let’s have more midday and evening services in the week, and activities that go on all the time. The Sabbath was given to save people having to work seven days a week. Doctors recommend at least one day off in seven. The Sabbath was a liberation, we should not let it be a straightjacket.
I have had an interesting comment on a recent blog, Has the sermon had its day? It (The comment, not the blog) raises the question of whether all in life, and especially in death, is predetermined or whether we have free-will and whether the answer proves or disproves the existence of God. I have put the comment and my reply below. For those of you who find this debate irrelevant, I will say something more down-to-earth in my next blog.
John, how can we have free will and an omnipotent God? If this life is a test to gain entry to a heavenly afterlife then an omnipotent God would know the results before the entrant sat down to take the test.
Conversely, if we have free will then there can be no God as we know him because he cannot know the results before the entrant sits the test. Anything short of an all-knowing, all-powerful God really cannot be considered a god at all.
If there’s a preacher out their who can break the paradox, then the sermon lives on. If not, the sermon is dead, as is religion.
The question you raise is one which has taxed greater minds than mine down the ages. Among Protestants, John Calvin, the reformer, writing in the 16th century, is the most famous proponent of predestination. The free-will view is sometimes called Arminianism, presumably after someone called Arminius. In the Catholic Church, the debate broke out in the 17th century in France, where the predestination view was propounded by Jansen, whilst the Jesuits held the free-will position. Both sides find plenty of scripture to support their position.
Moslems, Hindus and Jews have all recognised and found ways of resolving or living with this dilemma too.
Do Atheists believe in free-will?
If you think Atheism is the answer, think again! I have heard debates among Atheists where some believe all is predetermined, and others that it is not. This raises problems over accountability and punishment, among other issues.
Most modern Christians, and many before, accept that both views are true in a way. Some have tried to intellectually reconcile them. Most leave that problem to God. We believe in God for lots of reasons and are not put off by philosophical issues we can’t resolve. I can’t explain what electricity is, or light, but I do not deny their existence or refuse to benefit from them. Try it. With God, I mean, not electricity!
Do we have to have a sermon in every church service?
For most churchgoers, and for a lot of other people, this may sound like a ridiculous question. Surely, a sermon is an essential element in a church service: without it, the singing, prayers and liturgy would all seem rather pointless.
It is not as if the sermon was something introduced at some time in history by church leaders for questionable reasons. Jesus preached sermons. So did Peter, Paul and most of the apostles. Almost all great leaders in the church have been great preachers. Luther, Wesley, Spurgeon, Booth. Time and again, the Bible exhorts Christians to study scripture and exhorts leaders to teach. ‘Feed my sheep’. Teaching is listed as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. What would be the point of a gift if it was not to be used?
I could rest my case, could I not? Well, no. Not everyone agrees.
What’s wrong with having a sermon?
Some people would say that they do not need anyone else to tell them what to think. We can all make our own minds up about everything. Is it not the height of arrogance to stand ‘six feet above contradiction’ and inflict your views on everyone else? Why can each of us not just read the Bible and work out what it means for ourselves?
One important point is that in Jesus’ day most people were illiterate. That remained the case until well into the twentieth century. They needed to have the scripture read aloud and then explained to them.
In any case, why is there no opportunity to argue with, or at least question, the preacher? Nobody is infallible. Most educators today agree that discussion and questioning are more effective ways of learning than sitting passively, listening.
All the above has been true for decades. More recently, the internet has changed things again. It is now possible to get teaching online and to enter into discussions by means of blogs and tweets. You do not need to sit in front of a preacher.
You may be surprised to know that a lot of Christians agree. There are opportunities to meet and discuss the faith in things like Alpha and Journeys.
There are even some virtual churches. I am not aware of any based in the UK but I know of some in the USA.
So is the sermon on its way out?
I believe there is room for several approaches. We should value the knowledge of people who have made a study of scripture at university and can help us see what the books of the Bible meant at the time they were written and can help us see how to apply their messages today. I also think we should value the experience of those who have been working at living a Christian life longer than ourselves, whether they are ordained or not.
For some, a sermon will be the best way. We need to recognise that some people are more effective when given a free hand to prepare and speak at length, developing a theme and illustrating each point, without interruption. That does not mean we should not have the opportunity to discuss their sermons, whether immediately or on another day. Others are better when engaged in lively discussion with little specific preparation.
There are many models of church and some of us are working on creating new ones. Teaching and studying the Bible must always be elements in whatever we do. So let us not throw out the baby of God’s Truth with the bathwater of the traditional sermon.
The Prime Minister and other politicians have been the targets for a lot of hate recently. Partly due to the election result, partly to the London fire.
Let’s be fair.
They may well be due for some criticism. We all have to live with that. We writers have to subject ourselves to professional critics, not to mention lots of amateur ones. Some of the criticism is probably unfair. The flats were not built in the last year, and the regulations were not made by the current government. A lot of people have for a long time accepted the fact that councils had to control their expenditure on housing. What would you have cut to fund a higher standard of building? The NHS? Education? Benefits? That does not mean the government should not be held to account. Some criticism is probably justified towards many people and organisations. But be fair.
Hate is something else. It may make us feel good for a moment, but it harms us all in the long run.
There was not much hate after recent terrorist incidents
I have been moved by the response to the Manchester bomb and the Borough Market attack. Londoners and Mancunians showed solidarity and love. They did not look for scapegoats. Especially not local Moslems. There was criticism of the Police and MI5. Fair enough. But not hate.
Can we not love our Prime Minister, and all those in government and local government? Pray for the victims and all who have been affected by these events, including members of the emergency services, who have suffered a lot. Can you not also pray for the Prime Minister and her colleagues?
Let love defeat hate.
St Paul wrote, at the end of Chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans, in the Bible, Be not overcome by evil, but take the initiative and overcome evil with good.
For most people in the World, religion is not really a matter of choice. People tend to follow the religion of their parents and/or of the overwhelming majority of their countrymen. Those who choose to choose, find there are often unpleasant consequences, as their community often sees such a choice as a betrayal.
The right to choose your religion.
In more tolerant societies, on the other hand, not only do people take freedom of choice for granted, but they regard inclusiveness as a common value to which we all subscribe, or at least aspire.
One of the objections many people have to religion is that it tends to be divisive. Religious intolerance is one of the major causes of civil wars and terrorism. (Does Communism count?)
What’s so different anyway? Religions are all the same.
People who have been curious enough to study more than one religion have often commented on the similarities, which you can so easily overlook if you obsess about the differences. Surely, all religions involve these things?
a belief in a supreme being
a holy book
concern for the poor
repudiation of materialism
What right do you have to judge?
Are you not being highly arrogant if you claim one religion is all-good and all the rest are bad? Should you not be open to all of them and draw on the elements of each religion that you personally relate to? Why limit yourself? At least be generous enough to admit that, even if you find one religion satisfies you, other people may find their needs being met by another?
So do I agree?
I really do see the strength of all the above arguments and I certainly reject intolerance and agree that nothing justifies treating people badly in any way merely because of their religion. All human beings should be entitled to being treated as well… human, whoever they are. Even Republicans.
Other hand? What other hand?
There are, however, two things to be said on the other side. Things which people often overlook these days.
Vive la difference?
Perhaps the similarities mentioned above are only superficial. Some people have found the real differences to run deeper. If you were to describe a holiday in New York and a holiday in Moscow, both starting from Warrington, the stories might sound the same at first: the trip to Manchester Airport, going through Customs and Security, boarding the plane, the in-flight movie, the meal, landing etc. But those two cities are very different when you get there.
An example of differences between religions in a potentially real situation.
Think about the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus held him up as a good example of how to behave. He helped a stranger in real need. Now think how followers of certain other religions might have reacted.
If you help someone, beyond any existing obligation, it puts them under an obligation to you. That is not a thing to do too readily.(Shinto).
It was his fate to be attacked and robbed, who are you to challenge it? (Hinduism).
The man needs to learn spirituality through suffering. (Buddhism).
I apologise for any caricaturing, but I am trying to illustrate a point. You have to choose between those attitudes. You cannot hold them all at once.
Finally, the Big Issue! Is any religion the right one?
All the above, is based on the supposition that there is no objective truth about religions. They are products of Man’s attempts at making sense of the World. Religious beliefs are socially determined. This means you must believe that there is no actual god, merely an extension and expression of ourselves, or that there is one, but we cannot know him. All religions are thus equally valid and equally limited.
What if there is a God and he has made himself known once and for all. That is the assertion of Christianity. You do not have to believe that all other religions are totally wrong. Judaism is not a false religion, in the eyes of Christians. It is based on everything God revealed about himself in the Old Testament. Christians regard it as incomplete, as it fails to recognise Jesus as the promised Messiah. Similarly, Christians do not deny that a lot of the teachings of other religions are good, just that there is something essential missing from them.
You must decide for yourself if the claims of Christianity are true. I hope anyway that you will understand why some of us can go only so far with inter-faith dialogue. BUT please remember:
There is plenty of scope for sharing, listening, learning.
We need to treat all religions and all people with respect.
There is plenty of scope for celebrating those things we do have in common.
Christians must, however, ask everyone to make a choice.
I have written several articles about happiness, looking at various factors that can make you happy. Or happier. Or less miserable. What about the thing everyone wants, that we all hope will make us happy: money?
You might expect me to take the view of many Christians, among others, that money cannot buy happiness. Did not Jesus say, ‘money is the root of all evil’ and all that? Well, no! He said,’The love of money is the root of all evil’ which is about our attitudes not our wealth.
The scientific research on this subject is interesting. It shows that poverty reduces happiness. A lot. There is some disagreement as to whether this should mean absolute or relative poverty. I think that at the extreme it is absolute. In other words, being cold, hungry and afraid will make you unhappy even if you are a bit better off than your neighbours. However, being adequately fed, clothed and housed may not be enough if you are being constantly reminded of the lifestyles of the very rich. The media and social media have a lot to answer for. So does the advertising industry.
Another thing the research has shown is that as wealth increases beyond a certain point, happiness does not. Your second million does not make you twice as happy as the first. People keep on chasing money out of a desire to succeed rather than because they actually want to buy more things.
What I am saying is that money is not everything. But it is something.