Beatitudes | The Politics of Happiness | Wealth

Smiley-2-Mini-1Yet another study (BBC report here | Prospect article here) has confirmed what the wealthy have always told us: money does not buy happiness. It seems that after per capita income has exceeded around £10000, populations experience an inverse relationship between increased income and happiness. The question is then justifiably asked: should governments be focused on increasing the happiness or wealth of the countries they rule?

That, of course, depends on your definition of happiness.

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In the sermon on the mount, we read in contemporary translations of Jesus saying ‘happy are the poor in spirit, happy are those who mourn, happy are the hungry’ and we can hardly see many manifestos announcing these policies proving successful.

A good Wiki article on the topic attempts a re-translation of happy as “possessing an inward contentedness and joy that is not affected by the physical circumstances” and this, I think, nudges us closer to the truth about happiness, and perhaps unlocks why increased wealth does not necessarily offer it.

In Matthew’s expanded list, we see ‘happiness’ being found by those who exhibit meekness, poverty, mercy, hunger, purity of heart, peacemaking, mourning and persecution for right living. In virtually all of these we see a sense of gift. The person finding happiness is ‘empty’ because they have engaged with ‘the other’: they grieve for the other, they have mercy on the other, they make peace with another. Hunger, a meek purity of heart and poverty also seem to carry this sense of emptiness.

Wealth does not bring happiness because it pools and centralizes resources, and thus leads to barriers between people, to loneliness. The beatitudes do lead to happiness because they lead to engagement with the other, and interdependence. The reason we think wealth is going to buy happiness is because we remain convinced that we have to buy our way into relationship: people will only like us if we have x, y and z.

As Merton says in New Seeds of Contemplation: “We wind experiences around ourselves like bandages in order to make ourselves perceptible to ourselves and to the world, as if we were invisible bodies that could only become visible when something visible covered their surface.”

Riches are tempting because we feel the need to clothe ourselves, to make ourselves visible and important. But happiness appears to come from another source. From giving rather than getting. From making others feel visible, rather than trying to make ourselves more visible.

The politics of such a ‘gift society’ are tricky. Would increasing our own happiness lead to other nations being less happy? Would a lesser focus on economic growth mean real hardship for a poor minority? The hard conclusion of the reports is that the surest way forward to happiness is to tax the rich more. Now that’s hardly going to win elections, is it 😉


3 responses to “Beatitudes | The Politics of Happiness | Wealth”

  1. James

    Thanks for you interesting thoughts – always a challenging subject, both in the sense of what we persue as Christians and how we reach out to others.
    One thing, I don’t seem to be able to find the bbc article, the link goes to a search, and there aren’t any results which quite match up to what you have written.

  2. I love how you connect the beatitudes with happiness and the engagement of the other. I have not seen this connection before. Perhaps this means that the more we give, the happier we will be. This definitely runs counter to my American culture where instead of taxing the rich more we give them tax cuts; where so much pressure is placed on the indivudual to meet the “american dream” which says that if we strive for money and power we will be happy. This always leads to an individualism that has no relationship with anyone, let alone the “other”. Great thoughts Kester.
    I also cant get the link you set up to the BBC article.

  3. Sorry – the BBC piece is a little a/v clip. Click the link and then the piece is linked to on the right, under a red banner.
    The other side of this is whether churches ought to be aiming to make people happy, or doing something else…
    Is the gospel just about increasing happiness? If not, what else is it, and does this have anything to say about what else society might aim at? If the happiness gospel is about interdependent well being of me and ‘the other’, then I’m happy with that. If it’s just about me being saved, me getting healed, me becoming rich, that sucks.