Happy New Year! An apt greeting for the beginning of 2016, right? During this holiday season, no doubt many of us have wished family and friends “good health and happiness” in the New Year. These are time-honored greetings of the season. Plus, living a good life and seeking happiness in the here and now are key aspirations for humanists, agnostics and atheists. But did you happen to read the latest research about happiness not being an indicator of longevity? (The Lancet, December 9, 2015) Could it be that Scrooge gets the last laugh after all? Maybe, maybe not.
No need to rush to judgment here. Even the authors of this recent study said more research is essential. And while a million women were in the study (statistically a big deal), it was based on self-assessment (not so reliable a methodology). The study attempted to find some correlation between good health, happiness and mortality—and found none. Even so, quite a lot still needs to be sorted out about human psychology and well-being.
Definitions of happiness and indications of good health are open to interpretation. What makes me happy may not be what makes you happy. And especially as we age, depictions of good health change over the course of our lives. Further, for humanists, happiness encompasses far more than personal well-being. Central to humanist philosophy and experience is that our own happiness is maximized through serving others and working to benefit society. (Humanist Manifesto III)
So what might a Happy New Year look like for a humanist? If you had been at our recent winter solstice festivus, you would have gotten an earful of political grievances. We had a roomful of “Scrooges” grousing about extensive income disparity, reduction of reproductive rights, global warming denial, gun proliferation, fear-mongering politicians, spineless media and much more. Some might think then that happiness surely will elude most of us this year.
Hardly. “Happy New Year” is not just a trite greeting for Humanists; it represents our pro-active stance on life itself. And, it can serve as our New Year’s resolution to re-commit ourselves to accepting responsibility for our lives and the world in which we live. Humanist happiness is more than a pleasant emotional state for which to aspire; happiness is also in the doing of the work that helps create a better world. A world of compassion, democracy, peace, justice and environmental sustainability.
Despite the Scrooge-like complaints at our solstice event, we were still able to truly celebrate the season, our humanist values and enjoy each other’s company. Yes, humanists can have fun even while being thoughtful and responsible. A case in point was our dinner fare for the evening. Almost thirty per cent of the dinners ordered that evening were for the vegan entrée as opposed to the chicken option. That fact elicited a bit of surprise from the event coordinator at the Humanities Center. Really, so many vegan dinners? But nowadays, chefs have learned to make vegan entrees at least as delicious as the meat options—if not more so—and an ever-increasing number of humanists and atheists welcome a vegetarian or vegan meal. Many are making it a complete lifestyle choice.
While eating less meat and dairy is also a worthy new year’s resolution for anyone, collectively that solstice evening, our group helped reduce carbon emissions with our food choices and made an ethical statement to the Humanities Center staff. Certainly working toward the sustainability of the planet and the well-being of fellow sentient beings is one way to create and experience happiness in the coming year.
Others within our organization are ardent advocates of solar energy to ensure the sustainability of the planet. We actually hailed “solar power” in song that solstice night—instilling in our hearts and minds the importance of our values. In coming together as a community of shared values, we see that we are not alone in our resolve; we encourage one another and are inspired by one another. Collectively we change the world; alone--not so much.
Some of us have more resolve in one area of our lives to demonstrate particiular humanist values; others have resolve to act and work in totally different spheres of concern. By our collective efforts in summoning our passions and wills to act, we can help change the memes—the norms—of social, political and cultural life toward a more humanist vision and experience of the world. Indeed it will be a happy new year for us when we can help make it a happier new year for all. And as you know, even a Scrooge can help with that.