If there were a magic pill or drug that lengthened your lifespan by eight or nine years, increased your salary by about $15,000 a year, and decreased your chances of ever being divorced from your spouse or estranged from your children, would you be interested in acquiring it and using it? Of course, the answer would be an emphatic and enthusiastic “yes”! As it happens, there is such a drug—but not in the form of a pill. Rather, it’s an attitude we call happiness. Being happy in life has all these positive benefits, and others as well—and, to a certain extent, it’s something we can choose for ourselves. Scientific studies conducted on identical twins have discovered that about 50% of our happy or unhappy moods is genetic, and 10% is rooted in life circumstances beyond our control, such as illness or the death of a loved one. However, experts say, the other 40% depends on the choices we make—and if so far we’ve been making the wrong decisions, we’re free to change our attitudes and behavior.
Moreover, there are specific things we can do to move that 40% in the right direction. These include regular exercise, even something as simple as taking a walk after dinner; doing a favor, or something nice and unexpected, for someone else when we’re feeling depressed; spending time with children and absorbing some of their natural cheerfulness and energy; acting as if we’re happy—for psychology has shown that if we keep pretending this way, eventually real feelings of happiness will come; changing our perspective by pretending someone else is asking our advice on how to handle the same situation we’re facing, and thinking about the advice we would give; living in a spirit of gratitude, and if necessary, making a list of the blessings we’ve received, even though we didn’t deserve them; and finding consolation in our faith—perhaps by daydreaming about the joys awaiting us in Heaven. It’s also important to seek help if we’re feeling overwhelmed or pushed into depression by the 50% of our genetic inheritance or the 10% of life circumstances beyond our control; this help might take the form of talking to a trusted and sympathetic friend, seeing a professional counselor, or spending extra quiet time in the Lord’s presence (Fr. Joe Robinson, Guiding Light, Cycle A, p. 35).
Being with Jesus is the ultimate key to happiness—especially in Heaven, but also here on earth. He once stated (Mt. 16:25) that those who seek to preserve their lives—in the sense of being happy and secure here on earth—will end up losing them, but those who lose themselves for His sake gain the fullness of blessing and peace. Today He tells us how to go about finding this happiness or blessedness—and if we are wise enough to take His words to heart, we will discover the secret to holiness, joy, and everlasting peace.
The prophet Zephaniah promises that the Lord will bless and protect those who are humble and lowly, and St. Paul tells us that God deliberately chooses and favors those who are weak and unimportant by worldly standards, so that His power and goodness might shine forth all the more gloriously through them. In the Gospel of Matthew (5:1-12) Jesus tells us how we can participate in this holy dynamic: by being poor in spirit, meek, merciful, and clean-hearted, and by hungering for righteousness, being peacemakers, and persevering in following Him in spite of insults and persecution. All these steps are ways of devoting our lives to a higher cause—and unlike those who devote themselves to worldly crusades and political movements, those who trust in Jesus will never end up disillusioned, disappointed, or betrayed.
For several centuries the land of India was part of the British Empire, but in the 1930s and 1940s many Indians—led by their great spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi—sought national independence. A British diplomat once asked him, “What do you consider to be the solution to the problems of your country and mine?” In response, Gandhi—though not a Christian—opened a Bible, pointed to this Gospel passage (Mt 5:1-12) and said, “When your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount, we shall have solved the problems not only of our countries but those of the whole world” (Msgr. Arthur Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 1, #164).
The Beatitudes—a word meaning “blessings”—are indeed the key to world peace, the key to personal happiness, and the key to that holiness needed to enter one day into the Kingdom of Heaven. The reason is simple: these teachings of Christ reject the false, selfish, and self-destructive values of this world, and instead invite us to begin living here and now according to the rhythms and values of Heaven. We cannot do this on our own, of course, but God’s grace is readily offered and given to everyone seeking to live as a true disciple of Jesus, most especially by means of prayer, Sacred Scripture, and the Sacraments. Those who claim living by the Beatitudes is impossible, unrealistic, or too other-worldly are probably either afraid, lacking in faith, or too caught up in the things of this world. However, the way of life Jesus proposes today is achievable, with His help, and the only guaranteed way of finding and preserving true and lasting happiness and peace. We might say the Beatitudes are a way of leveraging the 40% of life we can control into a 100% chance of success in finding a true purpose in our time on earth and in preparing ourselves for a holy and joyous eternity.
Life is often hard or painful, and we can easily find reasons for discouragement, disappointment, and sometimes even despair—as far too many people in today’s world have discovered. However, this was not God’s plan, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Jesus offers us a very different way of living, and throughout the Church’s history millions of Catholics and other Christians—including great saints and ordinary believers—have discovered that it really works. May this also be true for each one of us—for in this way the Gospel will be unleashed, our lives will be sanctified, and our world will be transformed.