I just read this very interesting editorial in The New York Times, titled “Don’t Indulge. Be Happy.”
The authors point out that making more money and buying more stuff doesn’t actually make us happier [once we are at a certain level of comfort, of course–the authors identify this as $75,000.] What does make us happier is sharing with others, for one: they describe an experiment in which random people on the street are given an envelope with $20, and either a note to buy something for themselves or a note to spend it on someone else. Perhaps surprisingly, those who spent the money on someone else were consistently happier than those who spent it on themselves. And, the other thing that makes us happier is “underindulging”–not a real word, but you get the idea: choosing less, instead of more. The authors notes that multiple studies show that “underindulging–temporarily giving up chocolate [or anything else for that matter], even when we have the cash to buy all we want–can renew our enjoyment of the things we love.”
As I was reading that, I immediately thought of Lent, and how two of the central practices of Lent are “giving up” and “giving more”–at least, that’s what I will call them here. By the first, I mean the self-discipline of fasting, either from food or drink, or from technology–or from anything in which we regularly overindulge; and by the second I mean the discipline of devoting more of the time/money/energy/resources we have freed up to God and to the neighbor. Yet, at the same time, I don’t usually think about being “happy” when Lent comes–it just doesn’t seem like the appropriate word to use when describing the Lenten journey to the cross–but at the same time, I do know that every year when Lent comes around, I am glad: glad for the time to pay more attention to my life with God and with others, glad for the opportunity to refocus my life around my faith, and glad for the chance to pray more and indulge less. And I know I am not the only one who feels this way.
I know that there is alot about Christianity that makes people unhappy: religion has been used to throttle people’s self-esteem, drive deep wedges between those who think and/or act differently, and scare the bejesus out of little children and adults alike. However, even in spite of human sinfulness and brokenness, insofar as Christianity both proclaims the good news of God’s love, forgiveness, and grace, and also creates meaningful structures through which people can respond to that love and live in loving community with God, the whole human family and creation, Christianity can be a source of profound joy, and one of the key pieces to a happy life–Lent and all.