Encountering Joy: A Guide Toward Happiness

Recently, I wrote an article for The Center for Congregational Ethics in response to the following question:

I recently read an article in the New York Times of a course at Yale University that has become the largest course enrollment in their history–a course on happiness. If you were asked to teach this course not at Yale but in a local congregation, how would you develop it? What would be your course objectives, assignments, expectations of students upon completion of such a course?

Here was my response:

Welcome to “Encountering Joy,” a four-week course on finding deeper meaning through self-reflection, creativity, and simplicity. Here’s a course overview:

We begin with the Atlantic article “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.” In this article, Emily Esfahani Smith discusses the differences between a happy life and a meaningful one. In short, a happy life is highly contingent on mutable factors like health, financial security, and having needs easily met. A meaningful life is found helping others and having a sense of one’s purpose — even in trying times. We start with this premise because it reminds us that encountering joy is possible during life’s inevitable hills and valleys.

You have two assignments this week. First, journal on the topic What is your purpose, and how can you experience this in your day-to-day life? Next, find a person to serve; do so without expectation of a returned favor. Perhaps you’ll take lunch to a friend, volunteer at a nonprofit, or return stray shopping carts in the parking lot. Ruminate on the meaning you found in this week’s assignments.

Finding meaning often involves addressing one’s own insecurities. For this reason, our next text includes selections from The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. Brown offers practical suggestions for using one’s imperfections to find growth, meaning, and connection. My favorite suggestion is to practice creativity. We adults tend to avoid activities that make us feel out of our element. However, when we avoid this vulnerability, we close ourselves to the creativity that helps us become better friends, family members, and workers.

Being creative helps us connect with our deepest selves and become the whole-hearted people God created us to be. So, this week’s assignment will involve trying something creative. Dance, paint a landscape, whittle some wood, or build a Lego skyscraper. For a little bread on your creative journey, read “The Man Had No Useful Work” by Rabindranath Tagore.This narrative poem helps me give myself permission to enjoy creative pursuits in a society that values “useful” work. I hope the poem gives you peace as you create, too.

We turn next to Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness. Hanh suggests that, by practicing complete presence in our lives, we can find meaning even in mundane tasks like peeling an orange or washing dishes. Jesus says that today’s worries are enough for today; today’s joys are often sufficient,too. Hanh provides a path for appreciating this sufficiency. Your assignment this week is to be totally present for five minutes each day. For example, spend five minutes listening to someone talk without planning your next remark, or take five minutes to notice your belly rise and fall as you breathe. Discover how this mindfulness can create greater presence and joy in your day.

We end with the More-with-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre and the Simply in Season cookbook by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert. Both offer recipes wrapped in the gospel of simplicity. Their message hearkens to Jesus’ message that the lilies of the field are simply clothed, yet are nonetheless splendid. Likewise, we can find splendor in simple meals using seasonal foods and minimal waste. Select a simple dish to prepare for our last meeting. There, we will share the fruits of our labor while delighting in one another’s presence. Finally, we will discuss the observations we’ve had on this journey toward encountering joy.

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