Finding Happiness

What does it mean to find happiness in life?

As I scanned the headlines of a news service I use on my smart phone, I saw a number of articles on the pursuit of happiness. Like this one from Quartz (, such articles explain that direct attempts to find happiness generally lead to frustration and even despair. This is something that psychologists have known for quite some time.

How does one become a happy person? Pursuing it directly doesn’t work. Instead, happiness is something we develop along the way when engaged with things we find meaningful land fulfilling.

A couple of years ago, I conducted a study on how people who value spirituality understand spirituality as part of their sense of self. When most psychologists study spirituality, they attempt to measure things, like the number of times a person meditates or prays, how involved one is with a religious or spiritual organization, or how often a person reads religious or spiritual literature. Measuring these behaviors doesn’t provide any real insight into spirituality because spirituality is rooted within a person. The major religious traditions have always known this, when they speak about people with a soul or spirit — something deep within.

While I obtained great descriptions from participants about the ways they experienced spirituality as part of their sense of self, all the participants reported something else: a deep sense of happiness. I wasn’t asking the participants about happiness, but in the course of the interviews, they all reported reaching a point when their lives were infused by an overarching sense of happiness.

Let me be clear: none of the participants reported that they had intended to be happy. Several began regular spiritual practice to help cope with difficult situations in life, including addictions, sexual abuse, or an overall sense of shame. One person began spiritual practice simply because it was part of a holistic health course he attended and he kept up the practices begun there. But all the participants reported that over time their lives changed and they realized that they were happy.

To make this clearer, here are some of the actual quotes from participants about happiness:

“Who I am as a person would be a reflection to spiritual teaching which would be honest, good, and happy and joyful.”

“I feel joyful. I feel connected. I feel happy. I feel energized and relaxed all at the same time.”

“It (spirituality) makes me happier. It makes me a lot happier because when I feel connected to other people and to God, I feel happy. I feel like I don’t need other people to make me happy, I feel like I’m almost more balanced in myself. “

“I want to use the word ‘joy’ but I don’t want to use the word ‘joy’ in the sense of jumping up and down. Spirituality gives joy and meaning to my life.”

These individuals experience a profound sense of happiness and joy as an outgrowth of their spiritual practice. Typically, they started spiritual practice to be whole, integrated people. But in the process, they discovered happiness.

Yes, happiness can be a characteristic of your life. But happiness comes as we learn to live in a way that’s in harmony with our deepest selves.

(To learn more about my study on spirituality and self, visit: )


Are there ways that spiritual practice can lead you to encounter a greater sense of happiness in life?

© 2016, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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The Patron Saint of the “Nones”

Inspiration and spiritual growth can come from many sources, often from the unexpected. Have you been inspired by someone you least expected?

The religious landscape of the United States is changing. The Pew Research Institute has found that over 20% of people in the United States describe themselves as having no religious affiliation. Among those under the age 35, this number rises to 35%. Pew Research calls these people “nones”, those who, when asked about religious affiliation, check the box marked “none.”

This is not the first time in history when people preferred not to affiliate with religious institutions. In the Common Era, the first notable time when significant numbers of people left “organized religion” to pursue spirituality away from established institutions occurred in the third to sixth centuries. This is referred to as the era of the “desert fathers and mothers.” After Christianity had been decreed to be the official religion of the empire, many people wanted nothing to do with the forced wedding between church and state. They chose instead to move to the fringes of civilization, seeking spiritual pursuits on their own or in small groups. Such was a man who became a critical teacher of Christian spirituality: St. John Cassian. From my perspective, John Cassian is the patron saint of the “nones.”

John Cassian was a monk from a desert monastery in the Middle East. Wanting to learn all he could about the spiritual dimension of life, he sought out the great spiritual teachers of his day in the Egyptian desert. His goal was to find a place where he could live the perfect spiritual life.

In the end, Cassian didn’t find a perfect monastery. Instead, he took what he had learned and traveled to the other end of the Empire. In Gaul (modern day France), he founded a monastery for both men and women in Marseille. For approximately a thousand years, this monastery was known as a place for contemplative prayer, meditation, and spiritual pursuits. Cassian played a pivotal role in bringing the spiritual wisdom of the Egyptian desert to Europe and the West.

Cassian is known for his belief that the Divine is at the heart of each person. He understood spiritual growth as letting go of all the things that cloud the essence of Divinity within each person. For Cassian, this was a process of healing. He conveyed this in a simple statement: “The Doctor of our souls has placed the remedy in the hidden regions of the soul.”

There are many people today who seek out authenticity in spiritual experience and practice. While many members of institutional religion dismiss the “spiritual but not religious” as less than credible, I believe that those who are serious about spirituality outside of religious institutions have St. John Cassian as a model and friend. He’s truly the patron of those who seek authentic spirituality.


Authentic spiritual growth opens us to learn from sources we don’t expect. How has your life been nourished when you were open to learning from those different from you?

© 2016, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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When faced with a major transition in life, how do you decide which way to go?

Sometimes, it’s difficult to know which path to follow in life. There are those who believe that God has a perfect plan for us to follow. Our job is to discern God’s will for our lives. I don’t believe that. Instead, I believe we have choices to make in life. No matter the choices we make, God will continue to be faithful to us and provide strength along our path. These days, I’m reminding myself of this.

I’m facing a decision I didn’t expect. While I’ve made decisions like this one before, I was younger then. As I’m to the point in life when I’m counting down the years to retirement, I am more cautious about major life decisions. The caution is two-fold. First, I have less time left in my life to work out poorly made decisions. Second, no matter what decisions I make, I find that it takes me longer to recover from most every change in life. For example, I used to fly back and forth across the country and change time zones without much discomfort. But now, it takes me days to reacclimate from something as simple as changing time zones.

It seems that my choices today fit into two basic categories: the safe and relatively predictable or the somewhat unknown new adventure. When I became aware that this is how I could understand my choices for the future, I reflected on the choices I made in the past. I’ve had a tendency to go for the new adventure.

Early in 1992, I moved from Pittsburgh and the region in which I grew up after completing a doctorate. At the encouragement of a colleague, I moved to South Florida where I lived for nearly six years. When I moved, my colleague was the only person I knew there. He grew to be a close friend. I had several great adventures in South Florida and made some good friends. But I was young and somewhat naive. I left South Florida in a sorry state: burnt-out, frustrated, and feeling at perhaps the lowest point in my life.

In late 1997, I made a new home in Tucson. I didn’t know anyone there. I had been asked to consider pastoring a church in Tucson. I visited and realized pretty quickly that it was not a good fit. But I found that I could pray in the desert and had a deep sense of being “at-home” there. Without a job or a plan, I moved. I created a new life there, became the chair of a graduate program, was part-time pastor of a church, and met my partner. Tucson was very good for me. While many people thought it was a risky move for me — and it was — it turned out to be the right choice.

What I know from these experiences is that taking major risks can sometimes work very well and sometimes prove to be very difficult. But no matter the outcome, these choices were important steps along the path of my life journey. I am thankful for both the challenging times and the amazingly good times. Through all of it, I’ve also known that the Divine Mystery we commonly call “God” journeyed with me. No matter how difficult the times were, I knew that presence within and around me.

As I look at the next set of decisions, I have hope for the future even if I’m not as courageous as I was in my youth. I am more cautious, but I hope that’s a reflection of wisdom. I also trust the wisdom shared by the great English mystic, Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well. All shall be well. In all matter of things, all shall be well.”


In life’s transitions, what helps you to hold onto hope for the future?

© 2016, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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