President's Column - January 2007

What has Christmas to do with authentic happiness?
The Nativity code of positive psychology
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C.Psych
Toronto, ON, Canada

It was a gloomy day with darkish sky. A chilly wind drove shoppers into the stores and coffee shops. The holiday-weary faces and the retro song “Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer” reminded me of poor Charlie Brown and his sad gang. Good grief, this can be a season of depression and misery for many people!

This is indeed a grim holiday for those who have lost a son or a husband in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is a lonely time for those who have no home to return to and no one to give a gift to. The festivities of Christmas and New Year only amplify feelings of unhappiness for those who have been dealt a bad hand.

For anyone who still has the ability to apprehend reality, the world is in a bloody mess: Wars, genocide, terrorism, murders, pillages, and brutal dictators have claimed more innocent lives than natural disasters and diseases combined. The human tragedies are further multiplied by self-inflicted wounds, petty conflicts and bad choices.

How could we indulge in celebrations when millions of children die of starvation or AIDS? How could people be happy during this holiday when most days are bad days? What is happiness anyway? Does Christmas hold the key to authentic happiness for the suffering masses? I have spent a great deal of time during the holiday season pondering these questions. The following represents some of my reflections.

What is the meaning of Christmas?

To the believers, Christmas is about Christ, the God-child, who was born in a lowly manger and marked for execution. We celebrate Christmas, because God broke through into human history by stealth to give us hope of redemption. On that night, the angels sang and the stars shone brightly.

The Nativity story has forever changed our perspectives, enabling us to perceive reality through a different window. It opens our eyes to the transcendental realm and the vertical principles of causality. Thus, we can see hope beyond the grave, and discover positive meaning and purpose in the midst of suffering.

A lasting positive revolution was conceived in God’s compassionate heart and initiated by the birth of Jesus Christ. As a result of this revolution, the oppressed receive their freedom, the poor inherit the kingdom of heaven, the blind recover their sight, the brokenhearted find healing, and the losers become winners. Christ has turned the world upside down and made positive psychology stand on its head.

Christians celebrate Christmas, because Christ has unleashed a powerful spiritual force for positive change. Countless individuals have their lives transformed, when Christ was born in their hearts. They can be happy and optimistic in the midst of gloom and doom, when they become the salt and light of the earth.

But even for nonbelievers, the Nativity story reveals revolutionary principles of happiness. G. K. Chesterton in his 1925 book The Everlasting Man emphasized that the ideas encoded in the Nativity story have a universal psychological impact: “We are psychologically Christian, even when we are not theological ones” (As cited by Morrisey, 2006). We cannot fully appreciate the original contribution of the Nativity code without a brief tour of the landscape of happiness.

What is the meaning of happiness?

The pursuit of happiness is as old as recorded human history, according to Darrin McMahon (2006). Since the turn of the century, the personal quest for happiness has reached a deafening crescendo, with all sorts of merchants of happiness peddling their wares and prescribing pathways to the good life. The happiness obsession is sweeping across the globe. Happiness has become our golden calf, the god of 21st century.

But what does happiness mean? How can we make our lives happier? What is authentic happiness? What is the good life? Down through the ages, philosophers, political scientists, economists, religious leaders and psychologists have wrestled with these questions. Happiness means different things to different people; it may mean hedonic pleasure, peak experiences, euphoric feelings, aesthetic enjoyment, worldly success or eternal bliss.

We all agree on the centrality of happiness, because it is related not only to our well-being and health, but also to productivity and prosperity. However, there is a wide spectrum of opinions as to how we attain happiness, ranging from the Buddhist concept of negation of desires to Aristotle’s emphasis on ethics and virtues.


Recently, dozens of books have been published on positive psychology with a focus on happiness, well-being and human strengths. Hundreds of scientific articles have reported on the structure and functions of happiness. Thousands of websites are devoted to spreading the secrets of happiness. Major TV networks and mass-circulation magazines have all featured themes about happiness and the good life.

Yet, our frantic pursuit of happiness reveals that all is not well in spite of all our wealth and scientific know-how. A vast emptiness remains in spite of all our attempts to fill the void with possessions, achievements and happiness-enhancing activities. Paradoxically, we are awash with information on happiness, while drowning in a sea of misery. Are we trying too hard to be happy?

Viktor Frankl (1985) has provided a helpful insight on this paradox. He maintains that happiness is a by-product of the human quest for meaning. Happiness is like a butterfly; it will elude us when we chase after it, but it will come in through the back door, when we pursue our higher calling. What makes us happy is to become what we are meant to be. What really matters is not what we can receive from life, but what we can give in response to life’s demand of us.

Recently, Timothy Taylor (2006) has come to a similar conclusion based on his observation of the growing happiness industry:

“The quest for personal happiness, played out in the market place of Boutique Individuality, is wholly self-defeating…Because if every activity were a means to that same end – every conversation, dog walk or job well done valued only in terms of the personal happiness derived – then no activity would have intrinsic value. Certainly no action would be justifiable on the basis of social custom or personal sacrifice alone. And while nihilists will be content with this situation, those interested in meaning and community will be less so” (p.76)

Taylor also reminds us of a similar theme in Huxley’s Brave New World: “endless pleasure came only at the expense of happiness, just as suffering was banished only by banishing joy” (p.77). He points out the prophetic words of Huxley in his foreward to the 1946 edition:

“The most important Manhattan Projects of the future will be vast government-sponsored inquires into what the politicians and participating scientists will call ‘the problem of happiness’– in other words, the problem of making people love their servitude.”

This utopia may already be upon us. Many have lost sight of their spiritual destiny and become consumed by the happiness craze. The poignancy of this servitude is evident on the weary faces of Christmas shoppers and people’s increasing dependence on pharmacology for their happiness (McMahon, 2006).

This short tour of the human quest for happiness finally leads to my initial question: Does Christmas hold the key to authentic happiness?

The Nativity code for authentic happiness

The Nativity story reveals a divine code of positive psychology that resonates with people from all ages, regardless of their religious persuasions. It reveals a radically different set of principles of authentic happiness that brings hope to all those who are disfranchised, oppressed and deprived.

  1. Happiness is not a right, not a product but a gift. It can not be demanded, purchased, or earned. It is a gift that comes to us when it is least expected but most needed. The heavenly message of great joy and peace came to the terrified shepherds in their nightly watch over their flocks. We cannot predict what will make us happy or when we will be happy, but we are more likely to be surprised by joy when we are spiritually attuned.
  2. Every negative can become positive through the transforming power of faith, meaning and self-transcendence. The brightest light can only be seen in the darkest night. The shepherds’ fears were turned into joy. The disgraced Mary became the most blessed woman. The outcast became the most influential person who ever walked on the face of this earth.
  3. The good life is not about the pursuit of personal happiness but about fulfilling one’s calling, which often entails self-sacrifice. Authentic happiness is primarily not about me (my strengths and my successes) but about others (meeting their needs and making a difference in their lives). Christ was born to suffer and die on the cross, but he changed the world through his death and resurrection.
  4. The essence of authentic happiness is spiritual. It has to do with the awakening of our spiritual nature. At the core of spirituality is our yearning for oneness with God and our compassion for people. Authentic happiness flows from our spiritual character and transcends circumstantial constraints. The path to the good life, according to both the Nativity story and the Beatitudes, is through spiritual transformation rather than earthly acquisitions.

A spiritually oriented authentic happiness is concerned with only one essential question: Am I fulfilling my purpose and my destiny in this needy world? To me, happiness means the positive feelings and thoughts associated with the experience of oneness with God, peace with myself and others, and the realization that I have lived a worthwhile life in spite of my limitations and external constraints.

Duality of positive psychology

One of the underlying principles of the Nativity code is the duality. There is always a dark side to the human condition and life is an endless series of peaks and valleys. It is very difficult if not impossible to focus on the positive and shun the negative, because they are two sides of the same coin as symbolized by Ying-Yang. Traditional Chinese wisdoms have always expressed a dualistic and paradoxical view on life:

  • The joy of reunion is always mingled with the sadness of parting.
  • Gain may turn into loss and loss into gain
  • One’s strength may be their Achilles’ heel, while one’s weakness may become their virtue.
  • The desires for happiness leads to vexation, while the emptying of these desires lead to authentic happiness.
  • Dark and light co-exist just as despair and hope co-exist.

Dr. David Ponka, a Canadian medical doctor serving in a field hospital on the Darfur border, drew inspiration from a little boy born with a hole in his heart. “He was born struggling and won’t give up, because he is human.” As Dr. Ponka lit up a candle in the desert night, he wrote: “It will remind me that there cannot be hope without despair, or happiness without want. It is the lot of humankind to fill our days trying to turn gloom into joy and darkness into light.” (A18).

This is a good contemporary example of the duality of authentic happiness as revealed by the Nativity story. The good science of positive psychology needs to be broad enough to address the duality of human existence. Such a science will always be paradoxical and incomprehensible to the rational mind; it can be understood only by those who are willing to explore the mysteries and wonders beyond mechanism and materialism.

The Nativity code provides hope and joy for those who are suffering from different kinds of misfortunes. We all can rejoice in our weaknesses and sufferings, because these limitations can bring out the best in us through faith and spiritual transformation.

Now I feel more comfortable in saying “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year”, because I can see the rising sun through the dark night, and I can smell the blooming flowers in the dead of winter.

References

Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning: Revised and updated. New York: Washington Square Press.

McMahon, D. M. (2006). Happiness: A history. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Morrisey, C. S. (2006). The Nativity Code, The Globe and Mail, Saturday, December 23, D.15.

Ponka, D. Doing the hard work, far from home. The Globe and Mail, Facts & Arguments, Thursday, December 21, A18.

Taylor, T. (2006). Brand™ New World. enRoute Magazine, December, 73-78, Montreal, Que.