Faith in God and the science of joy © Gavin Ashenden

13.10.16.jep.jpgHaving moved to England, I have retired for a second time. The first time was from being a University lecturer and chaplain, and now after some years in a Jersey parish, I have retired as a vicar.

I am a bit shocked by the empty diary,- but after the shock, I am growing to like it. It opens up new opportunities- especially for writing. Or even for long neglected poetry.

Like the entrancing Thomas Traherne. He is remembered once a year in the collective mind of Anglicanism.  He lived through the English civil war and tragically died of small pox in his late 30’s. His poetry is considered as difficult as it entrancing and stretching. It bubbles over with mystery, joy and ecstasy.

He was unknown as a poet or public figure in his own lifetime. Many of his poems still haven’t been published. We know a few things about him from his will; such as that he had very few possessions. He left his friends what he did have; which were his books and his old hat. I rather like the old hat. It’s reminds me of Shakespeare leaving his wife his second best bed.

He is big on the link between joy and the experience of God.

”Joy is the only thing that does not cloy the soul of man”

“O never rest til every power turn into delight.

Til love and goodness burn thy thoughts to coals of fire”

Our joys are no impertinent and feeble toys.

They are all God’s, and as they overflow

Return to Him, to whom themselves they owe.”

The question about where you might find joy led me to Dr Henrietta Hughes. She is in charge of encouraging whistle-blowing in the NHS and has been offering advice about happiness.

She suggested that one of the real problems in the NHS is low level grumpiness that could harm patients and contribute to a toxic environment (where people would be afraid to speak out- which is where her advice connects with the whistle blowing part of her job.)

I’m sure her analysis about toxic grumpiness is pretty accurate. But then she rather spoiled things when she went on to talk in terms that would be better suited to a primary school assembly when she urged that “every single person in the NHS had a duty to help make it a happier place to work.”

If only happiness was arrived at by just telling people to be happy. That would be great. But it’s strange that someone paid as much as she is hasn’t notice it doesn’t work like that.

The paradox that lies at the heart of our secular culture is that we often mistake pleasure for happiness. For pleasure we have largely looked to drink, drugs, sex, money and belongings. Few of us end up with only a few some books and an old hat to leave to our friends.

The problem that we hate to admit is that we have maxed out on pleasure but still haven’t found much happiness; or indeed sanity. We have recently discovered mental illness amongst our young women is at an all-time high, and we don’t have the resources to cushion their pain let alone understand why it has happened.

So perhaps we should take seriously the possibility of discovering joy? It will be a surprise to some to discover that faith in God seems to work better than many other routes.

The scientific evidence is growing stronger. A recent edition of Behavioural Medicine documents a fresh study that claimed that believing in God was directly related to higher degrees of what it called ‘life satisfaction’, by which I think it means happiness. It explained that one of the things that characterise people who believe in God is hope, optimism and a greater sense that life has meaning; that love wins out over despair.

Over the last 20 years there have been more and more psychological studies like this saying the same thing. Belief in God leads to joy.

In a culture that rightly puts a lot of store by scientific evidence it would have been interesting to see Dr Hughes suggest pursuing faith in God as a course of action that has been proved to bring joy and meaning to people’s lives and was actually the spark that birthed hospital care in the first place.

But maybe the propaganda against God, against the quest for faith, has been running too long and too deep for it to be easy for people to reassess things for themselves and examine the evidence dispassionately.

However even if the science and the psychological studies don’t convince, and empty advice from bureaucrats doesn’t impress, try the poets; especially the group we call the Metaphysicals. They knew a thing or two about joy. And anything that dilutes toxic grumpiness and brings back meaning and generosity of spirit might serve us better than the bureaucratic finger wag.

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