Finding Happiness follows upon a TV series called “The Monastery” which aired on the BBC. At first glance, one might be skeptical about what it could say that has not already been said in self-help literature about the search for happiness. I was pleased to find that this book is different. Though it starts with the familiar observation that modern society is awash in individualism, plagued by consumerism, and longing for spiritual fulfillment, it does not offer the usual practical advice for obtaining happiness, such as setting goals or taking more time off. Rather, it offers what Jamison likens to a 12-Step Recovery Program, but for recovering one’s soul. “The monastic steps help us to take the spiritual life seriously and as an indirect result we come to interior joy and delight.”
The first two chapters lay a classical and monastic foundation for defining happiness, linking it to contemplation, virtue, and the Christian idea of a happy death. If we can imagine a happy death, we can shape a happy life characterized by “purity of heart,” the ability to resist evil and embrace the good. Using John Cassian’s writings, Jamison argues that the “Eight Thoughts” that challenged the purity of the desert monastics – gluttony, lust, greed, anger, sadness, acedia, vanity and pride – continue to challenge us today and form the basis for the remaining eight chapters. His approach to them is what sets Finding Happiness apart from the usual fare.
Jamison appreciates the workings of the human psyche in contemporary society and suggests that the modern world is most afflicted by acedia, a spiritual carelessness or apathy that was thought unique to contemplatives but now appears frequently in studies and memoirs about depression. A “catastrophic loss of self-awareness,” acedia convinces us that our inner private world is separate from a public sphere of action, so only our actions, not our attitudes, affect others. Thus, we may condemn actions that are angry, gluttonous or greedy, but see no problem with a disposition to anger, gluttony or greed. But, Jamison argues, “my own inner world is a place that can do harm or do good not only to myself but to other people as well. Simply being angry, for example, is bad for me and bad for those who have to deal with me; the vibrations of my anger affect others even if I never do anything bad.” Thus, if attitudes are the root cause of unhappiness, then the regular and permanent rhythms of monastic life can develop “a person’s ability to be aware of what they are thinking, what they are choosing and what they are doing.” Similar to the Buddhist concept of “mindfulness,” this spiritual attentiveness, modeled in monastic life, influences our choices and indirectly brings the longed for “interior joy and delight.”