The Harris Happiness Index is out, and the news could be happier. Only 33 percent of Americans say they are "very happy," down two percent from a few years ago. Despite economic gains of recent years, a decreasing percentage of us say we are optimistic about the future. What's going on?
There was a time when happiness was determined not by our material conditions (wealth or poverty, health or illness) but by our moral character. According to Aristotle, virtue is the key to eudaimonia, "thriving." However, after 1800, happiness became associated primarily with income and consumption.
Economist Jeffrey Sachs, writing in The World Happiness Report, advocates a return to "virtue ethics." He believes that "a renewed focus on the role of ethics, and in particular of virtuous behavior, in happiness could lead us to new and effective strategies for raising individual, national, and global well-being."
What could help us be more virtuous and thus happier?
Last week I returned from leading a study tour of Israel. One of the most remarkable facets of life in the Holy Land is the Sabbath (the "Shabbat," as they call it). The Shabbat runs for 25 hours, beginning just before sundown on Friday and ending just after dark on Saturday. During this time, it is forbidden for observant Jews to work, travel in vehicles, cook food, or even switch electricity on and off. We always warn travelers not to get on the Shabbat elevators—they stop automatically at every floor.
Most shops and restaurants are closed during this time, as are many museums and tourist attractions. Large crowds gather at the Western Wall for prayer. Extended families meet for meals and Shabbat observances. People across the country greet each other with "Shabbat Shalom" ("Have a Peaceful Shabbat").
Our Maker modeled the Shabbat at creation: "God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation" (Genesis 2:3). He commanded such observance for the Jewish people and for "sojourners" (Gentiles) as well (Exodus 20:8-11). Why?
Tyler Ward has a fascinating article on the Sabbath on Relevant's website. He documents research that our bodies and our brains need rest on a weekly basis to operate at their full capacity. We are biologically designed to work hard six days a week and to rest one day. As we take a Sabbath to cease work, we put ourselves in "receive mode" and absorb creatively from our environment. And we process our experiences, turning them into persistent memories and synthesizing them more effectively.
Are you keeping a Sabbath? Did you set apart a day last week to rest and reflect, to worship and to give thanks? When I give God a day, I am grateful all week long. I believe that nothing is more important for our souls and character than keeping a Sabbath.
Publication date: May 19, 2014