What makes people happy?
No question is of more practical importance to all of us. In recent decades, researchers have studied the happiness of lack of it or more than a million people in every age group and in almost every culture in the world. Two psychologists, David Myers and Ed Diener, recently sifted through this mountain of data looking for consistent predictors of happiness, and discovered a number of characteristics shared by happy people the world over.
They found that none of the things most people typically imagine to be essential to happiness – money, youth, sex, power – were in fact, highly correlated with it. But what they did find was that one of the most consistent predictors of human happiness was an active spiritual life. Their work led them to conclude that spiritual life helps people overcome isolation and loneliness by providing community and belonging, that it provides a sense of meaning and purpose, and that it’s a source of hope and enhanced resilience in the face of adversity. The data showed that people with strong faith appear to recover sooner from the effects of divorce, unemployment, serious illness, and other stressors. One study, for instance, found that mothers with disabled children report more joy in their lives and are less vulnerable to depression if they have a deep religious faith. Other studies found that among the elderly, an active religious life is one of the best predictors of life satisfaction. And so on.
If these conclusions are correct, then religious homophobia is a great social crime that has done us incalculable harm, and it is vital for our personal and communal well-being that we overcome the barriers to full participation in the religious and spiritual life of our communities. That’s why I’ve been particularly encouraged by the increasing interest and involvement with spiritual life in the gay community.
To learn more about this trend, I explored a number of gay churches and spiritual organizations – including Q Spirit, 12-step groups, Dignity, and the Metropolitan Community Church. I talked with gay Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Buddhists; and devotees of yoga and New Age faiths. One of the questions I wanted to answer was if there is a gay sensibility in spiritual life, and I do believe that I was able to detect a distinct spiritual “flavor” in all of the gay spiritual gatherings I attended. While the creeds and the practices varied widely, they all had some qualities in common:
An emphasis on spiritual experience rather than spiritual belief. In every group there was high “audience participation.” I saw no passive congregations. Everywhere participants seemed to want to feel differently when they left than when they arrived, and to feel their connection with the spirit rather than merely talk about it. There was great interest, for instance, in practices in every tradition which aim at direct mystical awareness of the divine. On the other hand, I saw no doctrinal litmus-test for membership in any organization, and not a lot of debate going on about doctrine, either.
A focus on creating community. One of the biggest draws for every one of the groups was a sense of belonging to a gay family or community. A common concern everywhere was finding ways to overcome the isolation and alienation so many gays and lesbians feel.
A moral philosophy emphasizing personal wholeness and compassionate action rather than sin, repentance, and redemption. I never saw any “I am a sinner” breast beating. Instead there was strong recognition of the need for self-respect and support for the personal dignity of gays and lesbians. In all of the groups gays and lesbians were engaged in struggles for social justice. The queer groups that were affiliated with established churches were invariably a progressive force in those organizations.
Distrust of spiritual authority. Everywhere I went there was a de-emphasis on traditional religious hierarchies and authorities, and a movement toward a more egalitarian and democratic decision-making process. Traditions were openly criticized, especially where they were sexist or homophobic, and in every group there was a strong commitment to do away with inequities based on gender. The distrust of authority encouraged fresh thinking and experimentation, but I also detected a downside. Many of the traditions expect devotees to undertake a disciplined course of study or spiritual practice under the guidance of a teacher, and I did see a lot of suspicion and mistrust in this area. This wariness can protect people from cult behavior, but it can also foster spirituality and encourage spiritual dilettantism.
But overall, I was impressed with the vibrancy and energy of spiritual life in our community, and heartened to see how quickly we are emerging from centuries of spiritual oppression. Of all the recent developments in our evolving culture, I find none more surprising, or more hopeful.