I’ve come across references to this study twice in the last week, and have thus interpreted this as a divine sign that I am to blog about it (just kidding, in case you’re wondering!). Last week, the Boston Globe ran an article entitled “New Reason to be Happy: It May Go a Long Way” citing the work of Nicholas Christakis (Harvard) and James Fowler (University of California, San Diego). The researchers have, apparently “discovered” through social network analysis that people tend to be happier when those around them are happier. Happiness, as it turns out, is kind of contagious.
The reaction to this research has been rather breathless. One commentator called it “path-breaking,” while another soared to even greater hyperbolic heights in his estimation of the value of this research:
“This is a stunning paper,” Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote in an e-mail. “It is sometimes said that you can’t be happier than your least happy child. It is truly amazing to discover that when you replace the word ‘child’ with ‘best friend’s neighbor’s uncle,’ the sentence is still true.”
Stunning?! Amazing?! Really? Perhaps even more stunning than the findings of this new paper is that the notion that our happiness might actually be tied up in the happiness of others comes as news to us. My happiness depends on the happiness of those around me and not just upon whatever momentary pleasure I, as an individual, manage to extract from life?! Imagine that!
Of course the idea that our well-being is bound up with that of others isn’t exactly a new one. Jesus himself, echoing Deuteronomy and Leviticus, said that the greatest commandment was to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and to love your neighbour as yourself. Throughout the books of Moses (and beyond), Israel is urged to obey the commands of the Lord (including, presumably, the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves) that it may go well with you (and your children, nation, and the rest of the world [Gen 12:3]).
Love of neighbour has never been about making ourselves miserable in order to please God; rather, it has always been tied to things “going well”—for us, for our neighbour, and for the world. Our happiness, as individuals, depends on aligning ourselves with how things were created to work. And things are created to work best when we look beyond ourselves as individuals and realize that our own interests are best served by pursuing the interests of others.
A final quote—this is one of the best descriptions I’ve come across of how happiness and duty to others fit together in God’s overall plan for the world (from John Stackhouse’s Making the Best of It):
[I]t is bad ethics to urge people to care for others at their own expense in any ultimate sense. No, the Christian view of love is shalom: when you win, I win and God wins. When God wins, you win and I win. And so on, endlessly around the circle of love.
The Christian gospel, therefore, does not ask the impossible and the irresponsible: “Give up your own self-interest for others.” Our self-interest is precisely that to which the gospel properly appeals: Here is how to be saved! Here is how to have life, and have it abundantly! Here is how to prepare for the everlasting joy to come! We are all in this together. Thus we work hard, truly self-sacrificially and even to the death, for everyone’s benefit: God’s, the world’s, and mine. No zero-sum, but abundant life forever and for all.