Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 1 John 4:7
Happiness is an elusive concept. It has been a perennial concern for people over centuries. At different stages of life it tends to get defined and redefined. The only thing that remains constant is man’s quest for true happiness and the antecedents of this mysterious phenomenon.
In this context I came across an interesting study by a famous psychiatrist and researcher Robert Waldinger, Professor at Harvard Medical School . He describes the findings of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies on happiness spanning a period of 75 years. This tracked the lives of two groups of men- one group consisted of graduates from Harvard during World War 11 and the other were men who came from the most depraved segments of Boston society where poverty and broken families reigned supreme. The study meticulously recorded the lives of these 724 individuals in real time as each one’s story unfolded to reveal the factors that contributed to his happiness. Finally from the incoherent mix of fame and failure, fortune and poverty, health and suffering, that constituted the different life stories, only one thing emerged unmistakeably— good relationships alone ensured happiness.
As a Christian I cannot hide my jubilation that the findings of this famous study once again renews our faith in the Word of God which gave us simple but strong life lessons in creating meaningful relationships with our neighbour, be it a family member or friend or even the needy man on the street. St Paul underlines this thought in pure poetry in his first letter to the Corinthians— If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal—1 Corinthians 13:1.
The Bible is indeed a treatise on relationships. On being asked to summarise the greatest commandment, love of neighbour came close on the heels of loving God. If we were to ask which relationships Jesus emphasized most, the answer would be difficult. There is one instance in the Bible when Jesus is informed that His mother and brothers were waiting for Him. His answer has put several theologians in a twist about how it should be interpreted. “Who is My mother, and who are My brothers?… For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.” …Matthew 12:48-50. Besides the natural bonding of blood relationships Jesus emphasizes the spiritual bonding of those whose faith binds them together in unified allegiance to the Lord. His own closest relationships were with fishermen, tax collectors and sinners—people without social recognition and others who were socially ostracised.
In its purest form, the love that Jesus described is powerful in its span of influence and capacity. It is untouched by ego and its hallmark is its capacity to forgive and forget. In our day–to-day relationships, we constantly encounter difficult phases that proceed from partners who have very little to share with each other. Power-distance, space protection and vengefulness all create crevices within marriages, between siblings and even in professional relationships. It is to this human interpretation of relationship that Jesus wished to introduce the light of God’s love, which alone has the capacity to raise our present experience of love and commitment in relationships and find it in our hearts to forgive seven seventy times.
The research findings presented by Waldinger speaks of how good relationships have an effect on well being and mental health and emphasizes commitment as a core quality where those involved can count on each other even if they have differences of opinion off and on. He also speaks of the downside of relationships as they can be messy, complicated and lifelong, which is perhaps why the more individualistic Gen Z prefer to steer clear of getting involved at all.
Nevertheless, relationships are key to the happiness we constantly seek. While the glitter of prosperity and lifestyle may momentarily blind us into believing that they can achieve happiness, these are merely mirages that move to greater distances as we approach them. Instead, let us look in another direction in the New Year. Take a few of our most problematic relationship areas. Call a sibling who has distanced himself from you to share your table in the New Year. Spend some quality time with an aged parent who can comprehend your love and concern even if she cannot remember your name. Make the first move to reconcile with a professional adversary. The language of love is powerful once you have succeeded in cutting the emotional distances that set into neglected relationships. Our Lord showed us the way. Let us follow where He leads us—As I have loved you, so you must love one another—John 13:34.