Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Lateral thoughts on happiness

I had the opportunity this morning to listen to the Today programme's coverage of the launch of Action for Happiness. The Today package included a visit to a coffee shop where a representative from Action for Happiness offered to buy the person behind them in the queue a coffee. That person in turn bought a coffee for the person behind them .... but then it broke down because the third person in the queue hadn't quite caught the context and didn't trust the offer of a free coffee being placed before them. Towards the end of the package, reference is made to the part that a movement for happiness might play in a world that is increasingly secular.

The package prompted in my mind two distinct thoughts. The first was that the acts of consideration for others being advocated by Action for Happiness carry, in the Christian context, a very traditional name: caritas or charity. An aspect of this, too, is awareness of a "context" of charity, the lack of which led to a break down in the chain of purchasing of coffee in the Today package. As Pope Benedict XVI argues in Caritas et Veritate, charity is something that we are called to live not only as individuals but also as a community. Ecclesial life does, of course, provide precisely this shared context for charity.

The second thought had to do with how quickly the relationships of trust between the one who offered and the one who received the free gift of a cup of coffee broke down. I think it is fair to say that relationships of trust have changed in society, certainly during my lifetime. Asking about the factors that have contributed to these changed relationships of trust can be uncomfortable. Divorce, or more particularly, the frequency of re-marriage after divorce; co-habitation; cultural acceptance of sexual activity outside marriage; cultural acceptance of same sex lifestyles. Whilst it is true to say that these factors have always been present, their increasing prevalence and societal acceptance alter the assumptions of trust in our relating to each other.  Situations that in the past would have been assumed to be completely neutral in sexual terms are no longer so neutral, and the relationships of trust in those situations are changed. Whilst, at the level of individual life situations involved here, one might quite rightly hesitate to adopt an attitude of apportioning blame or stigma, nevertheless at the level of public policy we do need to be realistic about the changes in trust that have occurred. I believe we should also be realistic about those organisations in our society that are deliberatetly trying to alter these relationships of trust, but not for the good. The scale of child abuse in the Church and other caring professions, with, in the past inadequate response by those in authority, and the consequent emergence of a culture of "child protection", needed as it was, is a factor of quite a different nature that has also altered assumptions of trust in society.

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