Will happiness rise like a phoenix from the ashes of everything destroyed by the pandemic? Hard to tell.
But when the Roman city of Pompeii was freed after 2,000 years from the ash and lava that entombed it after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, archeologists found a sign in a bakery. It read: “Here dwells happiness.”
That’s ironic because, as writer Vinita Srivastrava points out in The Conversation, the city was engulfed in economic and political turmoil just before the eruption, and still rebuilding from a devastating earthquake 15 years before.
But. whether the sign was a genuine sentiment or wishful thinking, we know the Romans thought happiness came from the goddesses Felicitas and Fortuna, which both had temples in Rome where those seeking favour could make offerings in return for health and prosperity. Even emperors put the goddesses on their coins, hoping their association with them would rub off.
So, maybe the baker was using the sign to channel divine help for his life and business.
Regardless, another irony was that slaves were commonly named Felix and Felicitas, which both meant “lucky.” Felix, the first-century governor of Judea mentioned in the Book of Acts, who was a former slave. But Srivastrava says Lucky didn’t refer to the slaves, but to the owners, because slaves were considered proof of their masters’ status and happiness.
Happiness for some came at the expense of others. And it’s often the same today.
So it’s worth asking: How happy are we? And where does happiness come from? According to the World 2021 Happiness Report, people have been surprisingly resilient in the face of the pandemic, with only a 10 per cent increase over last year in the number who said they were worried or sad.
Still, levels of depression and anxiety are climbing, and lots of people are working more than ever, with 17 per cent in a Gallop poll saying they put in 60 or more hours a week.
As for the source of happiness, Srivastrava cites the world’s longest-running study of the topic, which began at Harvard University in 1938 and finished 80 years later, after tracking students and their descendants.
“Close relationships, more than money or fame… keep people happy throughout their lives,” says the study’s main conclusion. Those relationships include spouses, children and a close group of supportive friends.
Building on that study, Harvard social scientist Arthur Brooks has found that faith and meaningful work also enhance happiness. That’s not a surprise because data show faith, relationships and fulfilling work all lead to feelings of safety and security, which is the foundation of our sense of well-being.
But the pandemic has sparked what I think is a healthy re-evaluation of that entire package. It’s too early to know if that will lead to lasting changes, but some things already seem clear.
First, there’s a new awareness that our closest relationships are the most precious things we have, especially when the chips are down. Many people are more intent on spending quality time with the people they love, and less inclined to be with others, simply out of a sense of duty or obligation.
More families are focusing inward. Many are staying home.
A similar reckoning is shaking the world of work. Though a significant number of people still put in excessive hours, lots more are leaving high-stress jobs for less responsibility, even if it means lower pay.
Not everybody can do that, but even people with fewer options are deserting employers who treat them badly. They no longer are willing to let those business owners build their own personal status and happiness on their backs.
Though the U.S. is feeling the Great Resignation — a wave of workers leaving their jobs — it hasn’t hit Canada yet. But we are experiencing the Great Realignment. The pandemic has made workers rethink their careers, work conditions and long-term goals.
Many want the freedom of working from home, or a better work-life balance.
As for the current state of faith, there’s little hard data to measure the pandemic’s effects. Though church attendance was in a free-fall even before the virus, we simply don’t know the extent to which people are reconsidering God, pursuing personal spirituality or taking advantage of online worship.
But we do know one thing: The churches that thrive will be those who focus on the priorities of Jesus — genuine faith, loving relationships, and meaningful work that honours God and serves others. It’s no coincidence those things just happen to make us feel safe, secure and serene.
As Christ said, the very most important thing is to love God with “all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind… and love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt. 22:37-39) So, if we can get back to those basics, God will be happy. And so will we.
Share your thoughts with Rick Gamble at email@example.com A former TV reporter, he pastors a non-denominational church in Brantford, Followers of Christ (bit.ly/3fs3NCd), and teaches media at Wilfrid Laurier University.