Friday, May 27, 2011

Happiness and Pleasure

Friday, May 27, 2011 -- Week of 5 Easter, Year One
Bertha and Ethelbert, Queen and King of Kent, 616
To read about our daily commemorations, go to our Holy Women, Holy Men blog:

Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 962)
Psalms 106:1-18 (morning)      106:19-48 (evening)
Wisdom of Solomon* 16:15 - 17:1
Romans 14:13-23
Luke 8:40-56
            * found in the Apocrypha

Happy are they who act with justice *
     and always do what is right!  (Psalm 106:3)

You gave them what they asked, *
     but sent leanness into their soul.  (Psalm 106:15)

Here is a thought experiment.  What if science discovered a way to stimulate the brain so that you would never again experience the feelings of sadness or pain, but rather only pleasure?  What if, by artificial means, there was a technique that insured that the areas of your brain which create the experience of pleasure would be stimulated constantly and the areas of your brain that send impulses of sadness and pain would be blocked?  Your life would be a constant experience of pleasure and enjoyment, never clouded by sadness or pain.  Would you choose that life over the life you have now?

When offered that thought experiment, most people say "No." 

It seems that we sense that there is something intrinsically valuable and real about the struggle between pain and pleasure.  There is something intrinsically wrong about pleasures that are not grounded in something deeper.  One researcher says that our highest happiness is a happiness that we have somehow earned because we have struggled for it or we have practiced some form of virtue which gives us a sense of satisfaction or gratification.  Gratification is more satisfying than mere pleasure, he says.

"Happy are they who act with justice and always do what is right!" says the Psalmist.  Our happiness is intrinsically corporate.  It is tied to our relationship with others, grounded in justice.  For justice has to do with the corporate expression of love.  Justice is the core value of loving my neighbor as myself.  I forget who I first heard say it, but some thinker could not imagine being able to enjoy the bliss of heaven while knowing any of his fellow humans would be simultaneously suffering the agonies of hell. 

Our deepest satisfaction comes from the deep wells of wisdom.  It comes from our own practice of the virtues.  We find our bliss with the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge, the practice of courage and love, a commitment to humanity and justice, a life of temperance, a connection with spirituality and transcendence.  These are the wells of true happiness. 

Mere pleasure only opens up the neurological pathways of addiction.  The shortcuts to feeling good -- drugs, chocolate, loveless sex, shopping, money, shallow entertainments -- do not satisfy us at our deepest levels.  The Psalmist recognizes their emptiness, "You gave them what they asked, but sent leanness into their soul." 

At my Sunday School class last week I told about a college class experiment.  The professor assigned homework to each student.  For the next class, engage in one pleasurable activity and one philanthropic activity, and write about both.  The teacher said that the results were life-changing.  "The afterglow of the 'pleasurable' activity (hanging out with friends, or watching a movie, or eating a hot fudge sundae) paled in comparison with the effects of the kind action."  (Martin Seligman, "Authentic Happiness," p. 9)

True happiness is something deeper than having our desires met.  It has something to do with the exercise of our strengths and qualities in the pursuit of meaningful good.  "Happy are they who act with justice and always do what is right!"  Virtue is its own reward.  Joy.



Audio podcast:  Listen to an audio podcast of the most recent Morning Reflections from today and the past week.  Click the following link:
Morning Reflection Podcasts

About Morning Reflections
"Morning Reflections" is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at -- Click for online Daily Office
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site at this location -- --  Click for Divine Hours

Discussion Blog:  To comment on today's reflection or readings, go to, or click here for Lowell's blog find today's reading, click "comment" at the bottom of the reading, and post your thoughts.

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

See our Web site at

Our Rule of Life: 
We aspire to...
    worship weekly
    pray daily
    learn constantly
    serve joyfully 
    live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


At 11:13 PM, Anonymous janet said...

There can be a deep satisfaction in living genuinely, in the moment, centered in God, in the flow of life and love. There can be great joy in seeking to do God's will. And there is true freedom in following Christ, in belonging to Christ. But, I don't think this joy or happiness excludes a certain sadness. As I take care of one who is dying, or work with another who is impoverished and lives and moves and has his being from a wheelchair, I sense a certain sadness of knowing that I, as an individual, and that we, as a society, or even as a religious community, are often times far from Jesus' command to love and serve all, especially when it comes to accepting and including all. It may be best symbolized by the Taoist symbol, that harmony is both the sadness and the joy, experienced each within the other, or to paraphrase Camus - that we should simultaneously serve suffering and beauty. There is some suffering in all beauty, or some beauty in all suffering. This state of being is not at all a neutral place, but it is an experience of what seems to me to be the truer reality of this human life.


At 8:00 AM, Blogger Lowell said...


Thank you for your comment on Friday's reading. Absolutely exquisite.


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