The Guide to Happiness – My October Column in Full

This article was published in The Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 27th October.

I’ve almost given up watching the news on television and after a quick scan of the headlines I tend to turn to the crossword. The reason is that it’s all bad news. Think about the big items on the news recently. Asia has suffered from terrible floods, mudslides and earthquakes. The Caribbean has been hit by one hurricane after another before they moved on to hit America. Then California went on fire. The vineyards were burned down. No more Californian reds; that is really depressing.

Politics has been no better. Right wing extremists are on the move everywhere and nobody likes this government; not even the politicians themselves. Nobody is happy. Even in the Church we have dissent and distrust. We have cardinals telling the Pope he has got it wrong. We have a Catholic hospital in Belgium offering euthanasia. Is it any wonder people are unhappy?

Surely God didn’t intend us to be unhappy? He could have given us some advice on how to avoid unhappiness. Luckily he did. If you think back to the Old Testament story about how the Israelites escaped from Egypt you might remember that they wandered around the desert for years. They became very unhappy with their leader Moses. He was taking them to a promised land but they couldn’t see an end to their wandering.

Moses was sent off to consult with God and returned with a guide to happiness that we call the Ten Commandments. Now, not everyone would agree with my description of the Ten Commandments as a guide to happiness. Today many people think of the commandments as a prescription for unhappiness. They stop us doing things we might want to do. They are said to emphasise the negative rather than the positive. Can commandments like these really be a guide to happiness?

If anybody should know what it takes to make us happy it must be God, he made us after all. God is in a unique position to know what makes people happy and what makes them unhappy. If I had the job of sorting out people’s unhappiness I would probably start by looking at what makes them happy. Winning the Euromillions draw could really boost my happiness levels. Being famous or staying in luxury hotels should really boost my self-regard; maybe even being able to buy a pair of shoes that actually fit would help.

However, looking at the facts seems to undermine my conclusions. People who win large sums seem to experience a hard time. Some even claim their windfall has ruined their lives. Looking at celebrities and the ultra-rich I seem to see people who are really unhappy. A few years ago, when I wrote the Missio column for this paper, a former editor complained that the pictures of children in Africa that I submitted were good but the children were always smiling. Perhaps some sad faces would paint a better picture of their plight.

I did offer to provide pictures of sad faces but I warned that I would need to go around Scotland to get some miserable looking faces. The African children were happy that they has something to eat that morning or that they could go to school that day, simple things. Here we take it for granted that we will be fed but we might not be happy with what is served up for us. I never saw children in Africa complain that they didn’t like the food.

It would seem my understanding of human happiness is less than useful. I think I need to have a look at God’s ideas of happiness and try to understand why He sent Moses to lead the Israelites to a happier place.

So, who was Moses and why did God choose him to lead the people? We all remember the story of Moses being put into a basket and floated down the river to be found by Pharaoh’s daughter. In this way he was to escape the slaughter of Israelite children by Pharaoh’s soldiers. He grew up as an Egyptian prince but had to flee after killing an Egyptian who was mistreating Israelite slaves.

Moses was a killer, a poor orator and wasn’t very confident. I would not have thought he was a good choice as leader of the people. When God called Moses he was afraid and when he was told what God wanted him to do he was reluctant to agree. God persisted and gave Moses miraculous powers so that he could convince the Israelites that he had been sent as their leader and to convince Pharaoh to free the slaves.

As we recall, Moses did manage to free the slaves and led the people into the wilderness; taking them to the ’land of milk and honey’ that God had promised. If he had led the people straight to this Promised Land I’m sure they would have been contented. Unfortunately they wandered through the wilderness for forty years. The people experienced hunger and thirst, scraping an existence from very poor land. No wonder they were unhappy. They began to think that God had sent them there to die. They complained to Moses and that’s when he went off to the mountain to consult with God.

Why did God make the Israelites wander for years before coming to the Promised Land? I think He might have known that if the journey was quick and easy the people might not have appreciated God’s gift. They would soon forget what God had done for them and assume that it was all their own doing. He wanted them to remember that all the good things they had were given by God.

I can’t help drawing comparisons with our western society today. We assume that everything we have is entirely the result of human genius and man’s labour. We have rejected any idea that God had a hand in our good fortune and many reject any suggestion that there is a God at all. Our sense of values is distorted. We value an iPhone8 above a real apple because it can enable us to communicate. You can eat an apple but not an iPhone8. We talk of growing our own food as if we make the plants grow. We didn’t invent plants or any other form of life. We have written God out of the story. Fake news is nothing new. We have been steeped in fake news for years . No wonder we are unhappy.

Over the next few months I’ll be looking into God’s guide to happiness.  What is it about the commandments that can bring us back to recognise what’s real and what’s fake news? Do they contain the truth about me as a human being and help me understand why I’m here? How many of us can remember what the Ten Commandments are? My investigation of the Ten Commandments will not have a cast of thousands or the booming voice of Charlton Heston. It will not have a budget of $13 million but I hope to take a serious look at something I’ve taken for granted.

The problem with this is the danger of showing up shortcomings in me and how I live my life. Will that make me happier?

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