The Cost of Happiness
by Paul Walker
The hopes of most people in the world are fairly
straightforward. Recently it was put to me simply as, "Somewhere to
live, something to do, and a date at the weekend." People need food
and shelter, occupation and sex.
Yet alongside fulfilling these basic instincts, over the centuries
people have spent an incredible amount of their precious resources, of
both time and money, on religion. Ancient temples, shrines and churches
all bear testimony to a strange desire, inexplicable in evolutionary
terms, to use valuable resources on the worship of something intangible.
In the rich Western world two things have now happened - perhaps
coincidentally, perhaps related. People have food, shelter, occupation and
sex in an abundance never before dreamed of. At the same time, fewer and
fewer people bother with religion. And even if they do, the proportion of
national income spent on places of worship is tiny.
So let me consider my abundance.
I have a life my grandparents could not have dreamed of. I have a home
which is centrally heated, with labour saving devices that are incredible
- a vacuum cleaner, an automatic washing machine, a dishwasher and all the
rest. I holiday at least twice a year, often to exotic places. I have
access to two cars, the World Wide Web, and all the food I want, in and
out of season.
The list is endless - yet many people reading this would not consider
me a rich man. Yet for (say) my grandmother, I am sure that she would have
considered just the possibility of an automatic washing machine and a
tumble dryer an incredible luxury in helping her with her seven children.
She might have considered that not having a full day washing on a Monday
was a contribution to her greater happiness.
But I appear no happier than my grandmother.
Evidence suggests that greater wealth in the West is not creating the
happiness it promises. Once our basic needs are met, wealth does not fulfill.
Ironically, we often feel that the reason we are not happy is that we do
not have certain things. If I was as rich and beautiful as a Hollywood
star then perhaps I’d be happy. The reality is that I’d probably be
about as happy as the average Hollywood star.
In such a situation one might imagine that religion would flourish,
offering something more than mere wealth, offering a deeper meaning to
life. Yet wherever consumption of resources is most conspicuous, religion
is in decline. It is growing only in those parts of the world that do not
share in the wasteful consumerism of the West.
Perhaps the reason for the decline of religion in the West is the
nature of the promises religion makes today. Modern Western religion
promises the same illusory commodity as does Western capitalism -
happiness. It has put itself in the same marketplace as the fashion
industry or tourism: "Take our product on board and you will be
fulfilled." The result is often Churches offering banal music with
words to the effect that "In Jesus I find my real happiness".
Only - in my experience, Christians are no happier than Hollywood
In fact, the only religion I see growing in the West is Buddhism. I
suspect the reason for this is not that it’s trendy, as threatened
Christians like to maintain, but that it does not offer happiness.
Quite the opposite. It says stop seeking happiness. Strangely, Buddhists
often seem very happy.
Jesus never offered happiness either. Nor did he offer personal fulfillment.
What he said to those around him was, "Take up your cross, sell all
your possessions and give to the poor. Go out in pairs with no possessions
and heal the sick." These are not the ideas of a religion offering
deep personal fulfillment. Rather, they are extremely practical ways of
creating a more just world.
To follow Jesus turns out to be simply too costly. Most of us cannot
think of giving up our possessions. John Lennon only imagined it. We
cannot imagine the possibility of turning the other cheek to the
aggression of 11 September, 2001. We cannot imagine taking our
message only to the marginalized poor.
So because the message of Jesus is too costly, we prefer to reinterpret
We turn it into a way of finding a degree of personal fulfillment which
deeper than we would get from a round-the-world tour.