If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed?
A beast, no more.
Study after study after study tells us that religious people are happier than non-religious people. I think there are several reasons for this- faith, hope, a sense of community, meaning, less anxiety and worry, and because religion (and philosophy) can build character, if approached the right way. Focusing on being a good person and being a good man or good woman, and not explicitly on being happy, will ironically lead to happiness. The main problem is this: focusing on being happy in the moment can often lead us to neglect the long-term goals, values, and principles which do lead to happiness. Religion keeps people on a path that might be harder, but which ironically brings people back to an even greater happiness called joy.
Two basic mindsets one can take in life are the therapeutic, or the religious. This is something I was not fully aware of when I was writing my first two books, but this is the clear case. I particularly noticed this when I was traveling in the Islamic world, Turkey, Morocco, and Jordan. I kept noticing that I had an unexpected amount of high respect for the Muslims there. What I was feeling was a bond with them, in respect to a generally religious mindset- respect, particularly for older people, tradition, community, and values.
Now that’s not to say that I want to become Muslim, or that everyone needs to have the same faith I have, or even necessarily actively participate in a religion formally, but one can basically choose one of the 2 following ways of living or viewing the world:
- Religious Mindset- Have faith, trust, or awe in the culture, institutions, God or gods, and sacred places and experiences available to you, and try to live your life to a high standard of accountability set by those revealed and traditional things within your community and have respect for the past, and your ancestors, family, and tribe.
- Therapy Mindset- Focus on yourself and on being happy.
The religious mindset and the therapy mindset are two different ways of seeing the world. The thing that I came to see from my experience, as well as research, is that people who try to be “good” people, which is synonymous with the religious mindset, are happier than people who just try to be happy. In other words, people focused on being accountable to some standards higher than themselves, or their own ego, are people who in the end, through faith, are happier people. People that are obsessed with pleasing themselves, and stroking their own ego, may spend their whole life chasing an elusive target, because the therapeutic mindset does not offer long-term gratification for the ego, ironically.
Of course, there is a place for therapy and I’m generalizing, but in general this dichotomy is true. I know countless people who have benefited from therapy but to have a therapy mindset is self-defeating because it is too tied up in the moment, in instinct, and in short-term instant gratification. Everything I’ve ever done worthwhile took some time. In the big scheme of things, it makes more sense that the therapy mindset (making oneself happy) would play a secondary role in a larger framework of values which places things other than the self at the core of existence.
CS Lewis once put it this way: “Who doesn’t dream at times of lying on the couch for therapy? But it’s one thing to analyze a painting, and it’s a whole other thing to paint one.”
The search for happiness is self-defeating. Focus on achievement, character, contribution, long-term goals, and community, as well as contemplating the ultimate good. Make time and space for sacred experiences which remind you that you’re more than a body, you’re a soul, and you’ll be happy. Religious people have opinions. Pious people take the sacred seriously, whether they are formally religious or not. Therapeutic people look for a quick fix to make them happy in the moment.
In our day and age, when the only opinion allowed is to not have an opinion, the only piety allowed is negative piety, and the only values left are anti-values, I recommend:
- Give up on arguing with people outside of your group or tribe. You won’t convince anyone based on logic. Remember, they are probably living in the world of short-term emotions and therapy / happiness seeking. Metaphorically, you are playing chess, and they are playing checkers. You can’t have good dialogue with people who are playing a different game.
- Stoicism is a philosophy which offers special benefit, as does traditional Christianity, and even Buddhist principles. Remember, Christianity flourished as Rome was beginning to fall apart. In our age, it is better to learn to let go of your ego and pick your battles. The deck as a religiously minded traditional person is stacked against you so there is no need to try to change the world. Think local and do the best you can to be healthy.
- Focus on being someone who can look in the mirror and be proud of what they see, versus focusing on being happy. Ironically, you’ll be happier.
The authoritative and definitive text on this topic is “Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud” by Phillip Reiff. It’s not an easy read, but it’s worth it to delve further into the construction of a therapeutic society which is antithetical to tradition and community, and ironically, happiness and health.