Sunday, January 31, 2010

Happiness Isn’t Everything

A Sermon by Rev. Ricky Hoyt
Delivered January 31, 2010
First Unitarian Church, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA

Why do recent studies tell us that people are happier in Louisiana than in California? Maybe “happiness” isn’t the only reason that people want to live in Los Angeles.

In last month’s issue of the journal Science, two researchers, Andrew Oswald and Stephen Wu, published a study that ranked all 50 states in terms of happiness.

Now, if you’re like me, you probably would have assumed that California was somewhere near the top of the list, if not the very top. After all, we all have chosen to live here. So there must be some happiness factor that puts this state at the top of our happiness list. And presumably those factors that make this a happy state for us, would also make it happy for other people.

I’ve lived in California my whole life. Actually I’ve lived in the Greater Los Angeles area my whole life. I’m certainly happy here.

I love the weather in Los Angeles. It gets hot in the summer but not as hot as Arizona. And it’s a “dry heat” as they say. We never have to suffer through that miserable humidity that the South and East and midWest have to deal with.

We don’t have hurricanes in the summer. And in the winter, of course, it’s gorgeous here. A little light rain. A few nights when the temperature might get down to the 40s. And that’s it. We don’t have blizzards. We don’t have ice-storms. We don’t have to shovel the sidewalk, or scrape ice off our cars.

I love the diversity of Los Angeles, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities on the planet. I love the opportunity to sample food and art and music from around the world, just by taking a long walk in my own neighborhood. I love that there’s a gay men’s chorus in Los Angeles. I love the sound of foreign languages. I love the signboards in Korean or Armenian that I can’t read. And I love seeing people who don’t look like me everywhere I go.

Yes, we have earthquakes. But we truly don’t have them very often. And the damage is usually pretty isolated.

People think of Los Angeles as being smoggy. But I remember the smog being a whole lot worse in the 1960s and 1970s. Now when I think of somg I think of the progress we’ve made on cleaning up our air.

People complain about the traffic. And the traffic is terrible. But it’s possible to avoid the traffic if you plan carefully.

I love the culture in Los Angeles, a world-class symphony, art museums, theater that’s probably second only to New York in the nation. We have Griffith Park, and we have the beach, and we have mountains within a short drive for ski-ing in the winter, and we have the Joshua Tree and Death Valley, and Palm Springs, and on and on.

There’s no place on earth I would rather live than Los Angeles. And the rest of California is equally gorgeous with most of the same advantages, from San Diego to San Francisco. The Sierras and Yosemite, and the northern coast, and the agricultural bread basket of the nation in the Central Valley.

So I would think that California would be near the top of a happiness ranking of the 50 states. Which state could possibly be higher than us: freezing cold North Dakota? Rust belt Ohio or Kentucky? Poverty-stricken West Virginia? Backward Alabama? Conservative, angry, sprawling Texas? Isolated Wyoming?

Well in the happiness ranking, all of those states I just mentioned are ranked as happier than California. In fact, out of 50 states and the District of Columbia only 5 states are ranked less happy than California. We’re number 46 out of 51. 46!

The least happy state is New York, which I would have ranked nearly as high as California for many of the same reasons that I like California, theater and museums and music, a diverse population, great public transportation, beautiful architecture and so on and so on. Are people really happier in every other state of the Union than they are in New York? And if they are happier everywhere else why do more people live in New York City than in any other city in America? And for that matter, if California is so bad why is Los Angeles the second most populated city and California the most populated State?

So what state is the happiest according to the study? You will never guess. I’m sure even people that live there wouldn’t imagine that anybody would consider their state the happiest in America.

Louisiana. Louisiana!

To be fair, the data for this study was collected in the years prior to Hurricane Katrina. So there’s been a lot of above-average misery in that state recently. But even without considering the Hurricane, and outside of New Orleans, which I admit does seem like a fun place to visit, would you really think Louisiana is the happiest state in the country? Louisiana hasn’t got a single mountain for ski-ing. It hasn’t got Yosemite, or San Francisco. It’s hasn’t got world class theater or museums. It’s not known for it’s colleges, or for its weather. It’s not a resort destination. It’s not a center for science or education. I’m sure the state has its charms: jazz, I suppose. But there are a heck of a lot more people who have voted with their feet by choosing to live in number 46 ranked California than in number 1 Lousiaina.

So after reading the list, and getting over the insult of seeing California placed so near the bottom of the list, my first reaction had to be that something was wrong. There must be some mistake in the way they measure happiness, because clearly people can’t be more happy in States like Idaho and Arkansas than they are in California.

Well here’s the interesting thing about the study. The two researchers weren’t actually particularly interested in discovering which state is the happiest in America. That’s just an interesting outcome of their researcher. Their real question was whether people’s expressed opinions about how happy they are when you ask them to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 – 10, actually matches up with any objective data about the actual conditions of their lives.

The problem that researchers had always had is that they they couldn’t be sure that if a person told you they were happy, whether they really were happy, or whether that person even really knew what happiness was, or whether one person’s happiness was the same as another person’s happiness. Happiness is a subjective feeling. That means happiness is felt on the inside. A happy feeling isn’t available for anybody outside the happy person to look at or measure or study.

But these researchers put together two different sets of data that had been collected over the years. One was a subjective study where the researchers had gone around, to 1.3 million people it turns out, in all 50 states, and simply asked them how happy they are.

And another set of researchers had, for several years, collected data of various kinds of factors that most people think affect our quality of life, factors, like sunny days versus cloudy days, and air quality, and traffic, and the crime rate, and how long it takes an average person to commute to work, and the number of public parks, and the tax rate, and how many students there are per teacher in the public schools, and how much it costs to buy housing and groceries, and so on.

And what these new researchers found, in their study published last month in the journal of science, is that there is a very strong correlation between the kinds of objective factors that everyone agrees should be related to happiness, and people’s self-reported levels of happiness.

It’s kind of a small point actually, but very crucial for social scientists. The conclusion is, that if people tell you they feel happy, you can trust that they really are happy. People who live in places where all of the objective measurements of happiness are good: low crime, and low taxes, and clean air, and sunny days, and short commutes and so on, will also tell you that they feel happy.

People in California are less happy than people in almost any other state in the United States, because, well, we’ve got terrible traffic, and we’ve got long commute times, and we pay high taxes, and it’s expensive to live here, and the air quality is better than it was but still pretty bad, and our public schools are overcrowded and so on and so on.

Which still leaves me with two questions.

One, given all of that, why do I feel so happy? Why would I still rather live in Los Angeles than Louisiana?

And secondly. If California is such a terrible place to live why do 37 million people want to live here, more than any other state? More than 1 in 10 Americans live in California, when, it turns out, they’d be happier almost anywhere else.

I’ve got two answers.

The first answer is one given by the researchers themselves, who were also surprised that highly-populated states like California and New York ranked so low on the list. They pointed out that California enjoys a lot of happiness-producing features that make people want to move here, but then, because so many people do move here, the huge population creates a lot of unhappy effects. People move here because of the weather and the beaches and the mountains, but then all the people create smog and traffic and expensive housing. In the long run a slightly less beautiful place, that also has fewer people in it, makes for happier living.

My second answer, though, goes beyond the scope of the study. If you tell me that I would be happier living in Louisiana than I would in Los Angeles, my response is first of all not to believe you. But then if you whip out this study from the Journal of Science and prove to me that not only would I be happier in Louisiana than Los Angeles but I actually would be a lot happier in Louisiana than Los Angeles, and happier in almost any state of the union than I would be in California, then my response has got to be: happiness isn’t everything.

With the copy of Science waved under my nose, I suppose I have to admit that by both objective and subjective measurements people are happier most everywhere in the country than they are in Los Angeles. But I’m still not leaving. So there must be some other reason than happiness that keeps me here.

And that reason that I stay here might also be the reason that so many other people stay here and that makes Los Angeles and New York the most populated cities in the country, and California and New York the number one and number three most populated states in the country despite being 46 and dead last in happiness ranking.

It must be that happiness isn’t everything. Happiness is important. And happiness may even be the most important thing. But happiness isn’t the only important thing. People want to feel happy, but people also want to feel challenged, which doesn’t make you feel happy, but may create a more satisfying and meaningful life in the long run. People want to feel productive, like they’ve made a difference and made things better, which means they want to live in a place that needs to be better. People want to feel needed. If it’s too easy and nice and happy already, than there’s nothing to do or to add. People want to feel stirred up and inspired and provoked. Happy feelings are never going to get us out of the house and into the street, but passion, and discrimination and anger over injustice are going to get us motivated. It doesn’t feel happy, exactly, to struggle for an important cause but it feels good. People like to compete, which means there needs to be something to compete against, and the real risk that we might lose now and then. People like the feeling of overcoming obstacles, which means you need obstacles to overcome. We want to feel comfortable, but most people understand that it’s interesting and kind of fun to feel uncomfortable now and then, to feel a little discomfort, and adventure and risk. People like to see new things, and have new experiences, which always means stepping outside of the comfortable and familiar.

People choose to live in Los Angeles and New York City, because it’s kind of tough to live here. It’s a struggle, sometimes, and that feels good. It isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always pleasant. Sometimes it’s miserable. Sometimes it’s infuriating. And then sometimes the sun comes out after a couple of days of rain, or you stumble upon a new Ethiopian restaurant, or a 50 seat theater puts on a great new play in your neighborhood, or the freeway is clear when you expected it to be jammed, and suddenly you feel not just happy, but that kind of joy that comes from happiness that has been earned by a period of suffering for it. Happiness that isn’t just handed to you but is earned happiness and deeply satisfying because of it.

I think, for instance, of this church. I think of the struggle that so many of you have had in this church for so many years. I’m not going say you weren’t happy, because I suspect mostly you were. But I know it hasn’t been easy. By any objective measure, this hasn’t been a place conducive to happy-church going for quite a long time. A researcher would have come in here and they would have measured the deficit budget, and the small size of the membership, and the turn-over in ministers. And they would have counted the broken windows, and the broken tiles on the roof. And they would have sat through a lifeless worship service or two, and counted the number of empty rooms upstairs, and counted the number of evenings during the week when the building was dark. And by any objective standard of church-happiness, I’m sorry to say, the church would have been ranked down in the California and New York range.

There’s a lot of churches in the Los Angeles area, that are objectively happier than this one. There’s a lot of Louisiana churches out there, which you could easily have chosen to go to instead of this one. You probably passed a few “happy” churches on you way to church here this morning. But you didn’t stop at those. You came here. And I believe you came here for the same reason that people come to California from every state of the union. You came here because here you presence can make a difference. At this church there is something that you can do. Here you are truly needed. Here we need your work and your energy and your passion and your vision.

Here there is challenge. There is uncertainty. There’s a risk of failure. And there’s also something crucially important at stake. There’s the long history of the church and all those people who poured their lives into this place now wondering what we’re going to do with their legacy, and whether we’ll be able to pass the church on to a new generation. And there’s the larger faith of Unitarian Universalism in America wondering whether it’s really possible in our movement to have successful, urban, multicultural, multilingual congregations. And there’s a neighborhood around us searching for a center for their community and in desperate need of a safe place to gather for education and fellowship and activism and fun.

And when you put together that challenge and risk of failure with the high stakes of something important to be accomplished, then you create excitement. You create adventure. You create inspiring purpose. You create what they call in religious communities, “mission.”

Our church is called to serve. And the institutions and people who are called to serve don’t go where happiness is, they go where challenge is. They go to Haiti and build houses. They go to Africa and care for people with AIDS patients. They feed the hungry, they free the oppressed, they teach, they organize, they heal, they love.

It is the challenge of this church that calls us to be here. Happiness is our responsibility to create. But there is much more satisfaction available to us here in the good, hard work of taking the rough clay and unrealized promises of this great church, and building it into the fulfillment of our vision, than there is in worshiping in a comfortable cathedral already constructed before we arrive.

We are the designers of the dream. We are the architects of joy. We are the builders of beauty. We are the creators of this church. And on the day when the church we have made starts to look like the church of our vision we will feel a feeling much greater than mere happiness.

I look forward to that day.

1 comment:

Robin Edgar said...

Happy to see that you are blogging again Rick. :-)

And a somewhat belated Happy New Year to you.

Robin Edgar