The Science of Happiness and what it has to teach us in the face of Rising Loneliness, Narcissism and Inequality

To say that the last six weeks have been rather surreal would be an understatement! Our communities have never seemed so peaceful,  the traffic so quiet or — for some — the days so long. Indeed, it has been a difficult and frustrating time for many. The biggest complaint I have heard from people is that the “alone time” that many of us used to crave at the end of a usually over-busy, over-stressful work week, is loneliness. We miss visiting with our friends. We miss seeing family members. We miss our colleagues. We miss seeing our neighbours at the kids’ sports tournaments. We miss chatting with our brothers and sisters in worship or during fellowship hour. Although we have been learning new ways to connect with one another, there is nothing quite like getting together face-to-face with a good friend over a real cup of coffee in a real cafe.

I can’t help but think that this is probably much harder for those of us who are Boomers (or older). Raised to work all the hours God sends and to treat “busyness” as though it was the highest of virtues, it can be challenging to find that we have nowhere to go and no-one with whom to go. I am probably one of the luckier ones in that my work has continued at almost the same frenetic pace, since regular Zoom meetings, online worship, pastoral phone visits and daily e-messages to our church family have kept my days full. Earlier in the month I even had a funeral that was live-streamed. But I still really miss the one-on-one human contact. It’s a much lonelier world.

Perhaps our experience of self-isolation will help us to empathize with those who suffer from chronic loneliness. This week I have been on study leave, pursuing three different online courses that focus on how we read (1) Scripture and employ ritual in worship and other aspects of church life (and what we can learn from mediaeval religious communities), (2) Jesus and the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and (3) the Science of Happiness.

Why study happiness? Suffice it to say that we are healthier physically and mentally when we are happy or enjoy a reasonable level of contentment and well-being. But here is something else that the research has discovered. Over the past thirty years, as we Baby Boomers were busy raising our families, buying homes and pursuing our careers, our world also became much lonelier, more consumer-oriented, and less democratic. The researchers have found that loneliness, narcissism and a lack of concern for others, and inequality have risen exponentially. The scientific study of happiness, as well a study of the philosophic and religious traditions that provide one of the best foundations for a happy life and a happy society, have much to offer us as we seek ameliorate these problems. I hope to share more insights from this study which is offered through the University of California at Berkeley. Stay tuned! There is much for us Boomers to learn!