Does your Religion Make You Happy?

Columns inside the Parthenon.
Photo courtesy of my eldest daughter.

So, I’ve been on a writing hiatus for a little while because of all of my children, my Master’s thesis has been the most difficult. It has taken six years to be born and while I would like for it to have sprung fully formed from my head, the process has been more like Leto in perpetual labor. Without my dear friends and relations cheering me on, there is no way I would be able to finish. I just have to give it one final push and my little contribution to science will have been born. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Meanwhile, my spiritual life keeps on spinning. Last Sunday, we up to Nashville for my yearly ersatz Panathenaia and family picnic. I left some prayers and wool and managed to knit a few stitches while feeding the littlest one. The bulk of my prayers were for wise governance for our state, local, and federal governments because that is always needed, but I also hoped for wisdom for those close to me and for myself as I move from this task to the next in the coming year. I’m strongly considering joining the ranks of our nation’s educators so that I can teach science to kids. My love of science runs deep and if anyone can help me determine whether and how to pursue this after I finally graduate, it’s the grey-eyed goddess herself.

Even though I am always super busy, I’ve undertaken a project that I hope will improve the quality of my life. Because I’m terrible at coming up with names for things like this, I’ve decided to call it the “Year of Awesome.” The idea here is that I’m going to spend this year from this Summer Solstice to next Summer Solstice, making me into a better me. Much of my focus is on health and fitness since “in shape” has meant being rather round of belly for the past year and I’m ready to have my body back as much as is possible for one who is still breastfeeding. I’m already below my pre-pregnancy weight and feeling pretty energetic, so this first month has been a success. The hard part is going to be keeping it up through the winter. Once we transition from Apollo’s rule in the Temple to that of Dionysus in the fall and winter, I tend to slow down, drink a lot of wine (during years when I’m not pregnant or nursing), and eat a lot of food. This formula does not equate to “lean” or “fit” for me, but self-knowledge is sexy and now that I know this, I can adjust my activity to fit my personality.

In an unrelated, but serendipitous move, our Women of Faith group decided to read The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, a book chronicling the author’s year-long pursuit of happiness. The gods work in obvious and unsubtle ways. It’s a good read and, remarkably, a secular book that can be easily applied to a spiritual practice. UU Jill came up with some questions we’ll work on answering during our next meeting. Truth be known, we’ll probably veer off topic pretty quickly, but these are great questions to explore in the context of any spiritual or religious practice. In the interest of efficiency (coughcoughlazinesscough), I’ll quote Jill here:

- How do your spiritual beliefs shape your concept of happiness?
- What manageable resolutions might you undertake to give spiritual values more emphasis in your day-to-day life?
- Consider a spiritual “master” or well known person outside your own faith — What attracted you to this figure? What does this spiritual master teach you about your own beliefs?
- Where/when do you feel most spiritually awake?
- Gretchen said in the book, “When life was taking its ordinary course, it was hard to remember what really mattered.” Do you find that true for yourself? What resolutions might you adopt to keep what really matters in the forefront of your ordinary life?
- Gratitude, mindfulness, service, study, enthusiasm, humility, selflessness, faith, and kindness are among the virtues emphasized in spiritual practice. When she was starting her happiness project, Gretchen reflected, “I think if I felt happier, I’d behave better.” Do you think being happier helps you to be more virtuous? Or is happiness beside the point?

The author, happy she doesn’t have to travel to Greece to visit the Parthenon.

For me, happiness is exactly the point. I’ve often said that if your religion isn’t making you happy, you’re doing it wrong. Religion, in my reckoning, should contribute to your happiness. Real, lasting happiness has, in my experience, stemmed from being in the world in a more skillful way and my religion helps me do that. I’m happier when I’m honest, compassionate, mindful, healthy, enthusiastic, and so on. I’m not claiming to be any kind of enlightened being or that my practice is the way to true happiness, but rather that just about any religious or spiritual practice has the potential to lead to happiness and that happiness can bring you closer to your deity or deities of choice. I do think this leads to living more skillfully. I don’t know about “virtue,” as such. I prefer to think of “behaving better” as being skillful, but you get the idea.

So, my own “Happiness Project,” aka the “Year of Awesome,” will be to reach for my own personal arete to honor Apollo. I’ll be finishing up the thesis, moving on to the Next Big Thing, and improving my mental, physical, and social health. To quote Ms. Rubin, “Your project would look different from mine, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit from a happiness project.” I’m looking forward to hearing about how my fellow Women of Faith pursue happiness in the context of their own practices and I would love to hear some of your answers to Jill’s questions about how what it means to be happy in the context of your religion and/or spirituality.

About Sunweaver

In addition to her personal and group practice as a priestess of Apollo, Sunweaver works as interfaith clergy with a diversity of religious groups in the Middle Tennessee area. She is a founding member of the Rutherford County Women of Faith and has worked with the area interfaith center, Wisdom House, to help bring positive awareness to the non-Abrahamic religions. She is a mother of two, a fiber arts enthusiast, and a holds a Master's degree in biology.

  • erikcampano

    Happiness comes from within; religion is its expression in the third-person plural. Or can be.

    • Sunweaver

      That’s an interesting way to put it. Can you elaborate on how this pertains to your personal practice? I’m curious to know how you came to this understanding of how happiness relates to religion.

      • erikcampano

        Sure. Your original question has been on my mind because a local church has been advertising a series on “How Christianity Makes Life Harder and Happier.” I’m troubled by this title. Christianity shouldn’t promise difficulty or happiness, when it’s practiced responsibly, and we should be suspicious of any clerics who claim their religion will make you happy. Even the meditative traditions, like Buddhism or Christian monasticism.

        Religious communities and spiritual practice can, of course, produce temporary happiness, in that they can give you friends, economic support, a listening ear, a comfortable state of meditation, etc. But the same dynamics that empower these things also lead religion to hurt people: to shun, to waste money, to incite hatred, to withdraw from the world in negligent indifference. Even the most seemingly benign religions can do this. Anyone who’s spent enough time in an ashram, mosque, or monastery has experienced it. As for Christianity specifically: the Bible and the history of the Abrahamic faiths are so full of sadness and hardship — as well as love and ease — that at a certain point, no one who takes Christianity seriously can avoid the fact that the whole range of human emotions are wrapped up in Christian text and practice. Christianity has made life happier for some people (the starving child who is fed by a missionary; the televangelist who has made millions of dollars off of it) and miserable for some people (the victim of clergy sexual abuse; basically everyone in 16th C. Spain), and is a mixed bag for most. I can’t think of a religion that’s exempt from this rule.

        To answer your question about my own spiritual biography: What makes me happy — and I think, everyone — is a whole constellation of factors: whether you’re doing well on your job, whether you have a supportive family, what you had for breakfast — and let us not forget, in many parts of the world, if you had breakfast — your inner dialogue — that’s very important, and not necessarily a function of religiosity — whether you’re physically or emotionally wounded, etc. Religious practice is a tiny sliver of the pie. A religion can’t have control over your job, your family, your national economy, every thought you think, how others treat you, if you get ill, etc. And if a religion is doing this, then run.

        I grew up into a contemporary, very post-Vatican II, suburban Roman Catholic church, which promised neither happiness nor hardship. It was a safe place where all kinds of people’s emotions came out: grief, gratitude, anxiety, wonder. I was a mostly (unusually?) happy kid, and associated church with the most joyful things in life. The Eucharist — communion, community — was a way for the families in my town once a week to bring their individual wonderfulness and craziness, and gather at a single shared ritual of acceptance and hope for salvation. It didn’t instantiate emotions; at best, it allowed a place for their expression and perhaps temperance.

        At age 24, I moved to Japan — the least Christian country in the industrialized world. For a year, I had basically no Christian symbols around me, and no church. And I was still happy. I then moved to Cologne, Germany, and went through probably the most religious phase of my life, and even spent some time in a silent monastery. I was still happy. Back in America, when I was in my late 20s, I went through the diocesan priesthood discernment process — and realized I was more Protestant in theology. I eventually started attending a multi-denominational church, after I moved to Paris at age 32. And I was still happy.

        Then, at age 34, I was wounded very, very badly by a minister and her colleagues. This sent me into a year-long, suicidal depression with post-traumatic stress. I still can’t enter a church without getting a little nauseous. Now, at 37, I’m happy again, but I can’t pray, and don’t want to have anything to do with a god for the time being. But even though I’ve consciously and deliberately cut religion from my life, I’ve found I can deal with pretty much any challenge to happiness: the death of a loved one, unemployment, social injustice. The tools of Christianity have ultimately proven to have secular equivalents, and frankly, most of them I figured out myself, without the help of a priest or a religious text. I think that’s true for everybody; even when we think that a cleric or congregation has brought us to salvation, they actually haven’t. The fact is, we did it ourselves. The people we pray with are along for the ride, interpreting our own personal development using the symbols of a particular mythical tradition. As for channeling it into a weekly ritual; well, I don’t do that anymore. But that’s OK. If you are willing to truly be yourself, all the time, in the world in all your quirkiness and vulnerability, then you’ll find other people who do the same thing, and “safe church” will start popping up in your regular, daily secular communities.

        But traditional church can still be beautiful. Here in Harlem, on Sunday mornings, I see some of the most courageous and resourceful people I’ve ever met get dressed up, sing their lungs out together with great Gospel music, and celebrate how God is working in their lives and their community. That’s a real example of happiness expressed in the third-person plural.

        • Sunweaver

          Thank you for sharing this. That’s quite a story. In Buddhist practice, you say “I take refuge in the sangha,” meaning that community support is extremely valuable to well-being and the WHO includes social health in their definition of health. We’re a species that does best when we have other humans around to commune with and I think that’s what you’re touching on here.
          It is my belief that my gods want me to be skilled at being a human person. The impetus to work on this comes from my religion and has directly resulted in more happiness for me. While you absolutely can do this without religion, the role of my religion in helping me be a better and happier person has been the crust of my own personal happiness pie.
          It would be interesting to hear from some solitary practitioners about this.

          Again, thank you for sharing and may your pain continue to lessen over time.

          • erikcampano

            Haha – I wrote down the story, then didn’t feel it was an adequate answer, and then edited my comment to, “I’ll try. Give me a bit to think about it.”

            Religion can certainly be, as you put it very tangibly, the crust of one’s own personal happiness pie. I’d bet a lot of readers relate to this idea.

            I was very close with a practicing Shintoist for a while — a polytheist — in Germany, where she didn’t have really any other practitioners to share it with. Her spirituality was obviously very personal, and a sort of ongoing conversation with multiple gods. She’d be really interesting to consult on this question.

          • Sunweaver

            Haha. Well, I’m glad I got a chance to read it before the edit. I thought it was at least part of your answer, which makes the question worth asking.
            Again, thank you for thoughts and feel free to share. A solitary Shinto would certainly have a unique perspective that I’d be interested in hearing.

          • harmonyfb

            Religion can certainly be, as you put it very tangibly, the crust of one’s own personal happiness pie.


  • harmonyfb

    One of the first things that I noticed about Paganism was that attending circles made me happy (and I left eager to go again). :)

    • Sunweaver

      I know just what you mean. What about it makes you happy? Do you think it makes you a better person?

      • harmonyfb

        I think it’s the celebratory aspect as well as touching the gods. Does it make me a better person? I hope so. I know that it makes me a happier person. :)