Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Posts tagged ‘Religion and Spirituality’

The Happiest Jobs

Not so long ago, I couldn’t possibly have imagined I’d be writing a sermon.  While I may sometimes get preachy (ahem),  that doesn’t mean I ever aspired to the ministry.  Growing up, I never even went to church except on Girl Scout Sundays, when I felt very uncomfortable and out of place.

As an adult, though, I began to long for spiritual community.  When I decided to get a Masters in Mediation, I intuited that I could be more present and helpful to folks in conflict if I spent some time healing my own psyche.  This belief led me to the Unitarian Church of Montpelier, which has been my spiritual home since 2005.

When I finished my graduate degree, after devoting many months to studying the relationship between suffering and mediation, I bought a cheerier book: Dan Gilbert‘s Stumbling on Happiness.   It was a momentous purchase, as Gilbert’s book opened the gate to my happiness path.

On Sunday March 3rd 2013, the happiness path will wend its way through my spiritual home as I step into the pulpit as the guest minister at my church.  My sermon topic is, “Is Happiness Escapist, or a Valuable Spiritual Practice?”  (What do you suppose my answers will be?)

It isn’t unusual for members of the congregation to serve as guest ministers when our own minister Mara Dowdall  is away.  Nonetheless, I’m very pleased and honored to take my turn in the pulpit.

Even more exciting was receiving a second invitation to share my happiness sermon  — this time, from the Universalist Church in neighboring Barre, Vermont on Sunday April 7th.  I absolutely view pursuing happiness as a spiritual practice, so readily accepted this invitation as well.

Far left, my sister -- The Reverend Kathy Ellis, taking social justice concerns to the street

Far left, my sister — The Reverend Doctor Kathy Ellis — taking social justice concerns to the street.

But I do wonder, as I write the sermon, how the heck do my sister (Kathy Ellis, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia) and Mara and the other ministers I know do this week after week?  Writing a sermon is a daunting task!  And I know through my sister and through Mara that sermon writing is just the tip of the ministerial workload iceberg.

Lest you feel too sorry for them, though, I have to say the odds are good that they both love their jobs.  Indeed, in September 2012, Steve Denning wrote an article for Forbes on the “Ten Happiest Jobs.”  At the top of his list: clergy.  Denning notes, “The least worldly are reported to be happiest of all.”

Here’s the rest of his list: 2) firefighters; 3) physical therapists; 4) authors; 5) special education teachers; 6) teachers; 7) artists; 8) psychologists; 9) financial sales agents; and 10) operating engineers.

Only the last two seem at all surprising, though I think a lot of men I’ve known would love being operating engineers.  Says Denning, “Playing with giant toys like bulldozers, front-end loaders, backhoes, scrapers, motor graders, shovels, derricks, large pumps, and air compressors can be fun. ”  Yup, I can easily imagine my husband happily playing with these grown up toys …

Denning, who earlier wrote an article on the 10 most unhappy jobs, speculated that “the difference between the happiest jobs and the most hated jobs” is that “one set of jobs feels worthwhile, while in the other jobs, people can’t see the point.”  Makes total sense to me.

I also did a little bit of my own completely non-scientific research by asking my sister, Mara, and three other minister friends what about their jobs makes them happy.  Their thoughts follow.  But before you read what they say, pause for a moment to consider what the common thread or threads might be.  Some of what this group shared might surprise you.

Now, their responses:

Reverend Doctor Kathy Ellis:  “Ministry is about connecting – with people, with meaning, with the still small voice. It allows, almost requires learning and growth.  It is varied. Yesterday I even went to a movie as part of my work.”

Reverend Mara Dowdall:  “Some quick thoughts about what is ‘happy’-inducing: 1) meeting fascinating and lovely people and hearing their stories; 2) having the privilege to walk with people and be present for many holy moments; 3) reading poetry for work; 4) being challenged; and 5) variety: each day is different.”

Reverent Laelia Tawnamaia: “I agree with Kathy: love, meaning-making, justice advocating, creativity, flexibility, people, community, and soul growth.”

Reverend Susan Veronica Rak:  “I am happy in my work as a minister when all of me gets tapped into… I find all my ‘loves’ – story, art, creativity, beauty, weirdness, reverence, awe – come into play  in preaching, pastoral care, administration, etc. – and some of my greatest dreams and fears are in play, too. And that is what it is to be human.”

Reverend Janet Smith Peterman:  “It’s interesting that all of us are women and I wonder if that makes a difference. I think, too, that part of what is so satisfying is that I can use my creativity; the people connections are often at moments in their lives where something really significant is going on; we get to reflect on the larger sweeps of life and meaning; and, at least in the work I do, get to help communities find life/new life and redevelop.”

So, how did their answers fit with your expectations?  Certainly some of their responses were what I would expect (“holy moments” and “soul growth,” for example, as well as meaningful connections with others) — but what really struck me was the emphasis on creativity, variety, and continual learning.   It sounds very much as though they may frequently experience what Mihaly Csikszentmihaly describes in this TED talk as “Flow,” or “the secret of happiness.”

I also think it’s very significant that all five ministers described a variety of activities during their work days — activities that have also been proven to increase personal happiness.  Variety itself is a key to sustaining happiness, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky — mixing it up with our happiness activities keeps us interested and engaged in a way that is vital to continued higher levels of happiness.

Hmmmmm …. maybe I should pursue the ministry after all!  Just kidding.  Mostly.  Though I can definitely see the appeal in ministerial work, my calling in life is to preach happiness.  I expect to enjoy my time in the pulpit, but it’s definitely only temporary.


By the way, for those of you who read my previous post on happiness for the goose and gander, I want to share my plan for “special music” on March 3rd: I’ve asked my husband Bob and his fellow ukulele players to perform “Bring Me Sunshine,” performed in this video by the Jive Aces.  This song always brings a smile to my face.  Perhaps you’ll enjoy it as well!

Integrated Happiness

The face of happiness was not in the mirror on Wednesday.

A cold, which I thought I defeated, came bounding back, both the cause and beneficiary of many hours of lost sleep.  Because Tuesday saw some exciting developments in my happiness work, my mind was also very busy that night, leaping from idea to idea rather than settling into slumber.

Oh, yeah, and then there was that cup of coffee … espresso … sometime around 3:00 in the afternoon.  I wanted that latte, so I convinced myself that this time the caffeine wouldn’t keep me awake …

All in all, Wednesday was not a good morning.

Which brings me to the topic of integrating our happiness efforts — body, mind, and spirit are all involved in this endeavor.  Wednesday was an effective reminder that an unhappy body is a big hurdle for mind and spirit to overcome in their quest for a happy day.

Kerry and Ross demonstrating the fine art of integrated happiness

Kerry and Ross demonstrating the fine art of integrated happiness

I was also reminded of an Aspen Ideas Festival video I watched last week, a fascinating discussion on the neuroscience of happiness (  Kent Berridge, a neuroscientist who focuses on the brain’s pleasure centers, asked, what’s the difference between wanting and liking?

I know I wanted that latte, and liked it in the moment — but I didn’t like it much the next day!  Perhaps a note to my brain might help avoid future replays?  “Dear Pleasure Center, please remember, no lattes in the afternoon.  Thanks for your cooperation!”

Speaking of brains (you can interpret that on multiple levels), Martin Seligman was on another Aspen panel, focused on increasing individual happiness levels (   Seligman, one of the most prominent positive psychology researchers, shared four different practices to encourage a happier brain.  I’ve started one of these practices; each night before going to bed, I write down three good things from my day and my role in making them happen.  The idea is to cultivate optimism.  My friend Liz Snell told me she’s been doing something similar for years — she calls it the TADA! list.  Now it’s my TADA! list, too.

On the panel with Seligman was Matthieu Picard, who some happiness experts consider the happiest man on earth.  Picard definitely radiated well being, compassion, and joy in his presentation on spiritual practices to build happiness.  His focus was on a dedicated, consistent compassionate meditation practice to build deep reserves of internal happiness.  “It’s like watering a plant,” Picard observed.  To paraphrase, he said, you have to give the plant small doses of water regularly.  You can’t just pour large amounts of water on the plant once in a while and expect it to live.

I’m begun practicing a loving kindness meditation daily.   I expect to write some time later about how my attempts at building happiness are working.

Wait there’s more …  We also need to integrate our happiness with the world around us.  This could perhaps be the toughest nut of all to crack.  That latte … was it fair trade?  Probably, in this case, yes — but how often are our seemingly simple pleasures bought at someone else’s expense?  It is a given for me that my pursuit of happiness should not lead to unhappiness for others, but I guess a) that’s a lot easier said than done and b) not everyone gives a hoot.

My eyes were opened to the morality of happiness thanks to yet another Aspen presenter, moral philosopher Sissela Bok ( I was so intrigued, I got a copy of her book Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science to dig a little deeper.

So, we need to integrate our mind, body, and spirit in the pursuit of happiness.  And, we need to integrate our personal pursuits with those around us, near and far — because, really, how could we possibly experience enduring happiness in isolation?

Last Wednesday, when I felt so sick, I walked the 100 yards from my house to the general store, which was out of chicken noodle soup!  My neighbor Kathleen Landry was at the store at the same time and saw my distress.  She brought me a can of soup from her house — one of those simple yet profound actions that no doubt gave us each a happiness boost.

Writ large and small, we’re all in this together — all our body parts, and all of us bodies.