One score minus four years ago, my family started its yearly tradition of loading up the minivan and taking our spring break vacation just on the other side of the fence from Disney World-Orlando. All things being equal, a Florida vacation planned around my self-interests would have more to do with beaches than theme parks. The little bit of magic contained in the Magic Kingdom drained out for me years ago when my four year old and I waited in a forty-five minute line to get an autograph from Mickey Mouse. Having patiently plodded our way with the rest of the human cattle, we arrived at the throne. There, as if he were Pope Francis greeting the faithful, Mickey Mouse, himself, generously took a moment out of his busy schedule to sign my little boy’s autograph book. He even gave my son a hug! While walking away, I enthused, “John Harry, you just got Mickey Mouse’s autograph! What do you think about that?!” As if trying to let me down easy, in a sober, patient voice, my son explained, “Dad that wasn’t Mickey Mouse. That was just someone dressed up like Mickey Mouse.”
Spinning, twirling, diving rides generally make me sick and scared. Shopping for souvenirs more or less has the same effect. The one amusement park amusement that I can always count on to amuse is the serendipitous show put on by the thousands of guests visiting the park. I have found that there is nothing quite like people-watching to bring out the inner-social scientist.
Within the walls of these carefully sculpted artificial worlds, I’ve seen many things. I’ve seen couples in nice restaurants staring off into space…sad faces proclaiming that despite their amazing surroundings, they still have nothing to say to one another. I’ve seen young parents in Cinderella’s Castle caught off guard by their sleep-deprived child’s tantrum. I’ve watched overheated men and women with looks of grim determination willing themselves to squeeze just a little more “spontaneous” fun out of their much anticipated vacation. Within the confines of a theme park, I’ve experienced the excitement of young love blossoming, as well as the profound disappointment of a first love’s ending.
This Sunday, the Christian tradition celebrates the raison d’etre of our Church’s existence. We celebrate because, since the resurrection, every dimension of our human experience, has the potential of revealing soul-satisfying meaning. Each and every scripture in the liturgical cycle for the next fifty days will proclaim in one way or another, that all things work together for the good of those willing to do the hard transforming work of the Spirit. According to our sacred traditions, one of the signature qualities you will find in someone who has done this work will be an increase in Easter joy and happiness.
For the last ten years, popular psychology has seen a growing interest in the study of happiness. College classes on the subject are stuffed to capacity. Happiness books top best-seller lists. To my knowledge, no one in this field has done the study that I have imagined every time I visit a theme park. I would love to give a group of subjects a happiness inventory in their natural habitat back home to see what their baseline scores would be on an average day. Next, I would love to administer that same inventory in the middle of a day at Disneyworld. My hypothesis? I am guessing that people who are generally happy at home, will score about the same on their vacations. Likewise, those who are miserable in their home environment, will experience similar levels of misery in the Magic Kingdom.
Real happiness is not magic, nor is it like a weather system that simply showers on some, while leaving others in drought conditions. Happiness researchers tell us that there are characteristic ways in which people increase or decrease their levels of happiness regardless of their surroundings. Here at the apex of our liturgical year, I would like to issue an Easter challenge. For the next fifty days, can you make conscious and deliberate choices to tap the underground sources of joy that live in your soul? In other words, in big ways and little ways, will you provide the opportunity for God to boost your quotient of Easter happiness and joy?
For some, the gains may seem small, but nevertheless, they will be worthwhile. For example, I know a widow, who in addition to the pain of missing her husband, struggles with chronic, acute back pain. She recently had to decide if she would attend a high school reunion, or stay at home and nurse her back. I’ll quote her, “I figured that I’ll have pain either way, so I decided to go. I still had the pain, but I had so much fun, I wasn’t aware of the pain so much.” My seventy plus year-old friend intuitively knew what happiness research has revealed. Real happiness derives from nurturing relationships. Perhaps this Easter Season you could schedule a weekly coffee or beer with a dear friend.
Recently, I learned that my mom is something of a happiness researcher. She described for me her volunteer service providing transportation for elderly women. At one point she described how rewarding it was to take care of “little old ladies.” I responded, “Mom, it’s funny to hear an eighty-year-old woman talking about ‘taking care of little old ladies.’ What do you think you are?” Just before she burst into laughter she said, “Oh shut up!” I guess my mom intuitively knows the results of the research that has indicated time and again that acts of service, and altruism naturally boosts peoples’ happiness quotient. If you have been thinking about serving at a food pantry, signing up for communion visits, or providing transportation, perhaps this Easter Season is the time?
Recent happiness research substantiates an ancient insight that Pope Francis’ religious order has known for nearly five hundred years. Stopping at some point everyday and savoring the big and small daily gifts from God, boosts Easter joy and fidelity. Perhaps this Easter Season you could begin the soul-sustaining habit of a daily gratitude list? Many of my clients have found that a daily alarm set on their smart phone helps them remember to stop (i.e. take a break), drop (i.e. drop what you’re doing for two minutes) and savor (i.e. relive and recall with a smile) the otherwise imperceptible graces in their day.
Another Lenten Season with its disciplines of fasting has just gone into the history books. At the very beginning of this Easter season, how will you consciously and intentionally create a space for a further sharing of Easter joy and happiness to flow into your sacred, unrepeatable, holy life?