What's Tony Thinking

How To Be Happy . . . Sacrifice


“Sacrifice” It means, “To forfeit something of value.”

Does that sound like the path to happiness? According to the social scientist and weekly columnist at The Atlantic, Arthur Brooks, it is.

Brooks, who is also a person of faith, says that he is one of the odd people who actually look forward to the spiritual season of Lent, now in its second week. He does so, at least in part, because of Lent’s encouragement to forfeit some things or activities that are of value to a person. His column for Lent is titled, “What You Gain When You Give Things Up.”

Here’s Brooks:

“Lent is intended as a somber period, not one typically associated with joy and celebration. But here’s the weird thing: I like it and look forward to it. And I’m not alone—many of my friends who observe Lent say they are happier during those 40 days than during the rest of the year. Even some atheists have chosen to observe Lent for the benefits it can bring to body and mind.”Lent lovers are not just oddballs. The happiness benefits of sacrifice are backed up by plenty of social science. In fact, examining Lent can lead us to a number of new strategies to be happier, whether we observe a religious season of sacrifice or not.”

In particular Brooks notes that giving something up for a time or season will increase your enjoyment of it when it’s back on the plate, so to speak. “Sacrificing something for a short period effectively resets your senses to give you more pleasure from smaller servings of the things you love.” Absence does make the heart grow fonder. If you have something all the time, your senses and appreciation are dulled.

A second reason giving up something can be a gain is that it amps up “self-mastery.” You are in control of your appetites — not the other way around. To put it another way, there’s a kind of freedom in voluntarily giving up, for a time, a pleasant habit like a daily glass (or two) of wine.

More from Brooks (here he uses the social scientific term for “self-mastery,” which is “self-efficacy”)

“I often explain to my students that self-denial takes our cravings out of the control of our lizard brains, and delivers them to our prefrontal cortex, where we have a chance to manage them consciously. Decades of research have shown that self-efficacy strongly predicts well-being in many areas of life. As such, a season of sacrifice exercises my muscles of self-mastery; it brings my passions to heel and shows me I am not the sum of my appetites.”

Sometimes such sacrifices, whether for Lent or another religious observance, have gotten a bad rap, even ridicule. But I think Brooks is right. There can be significant value in such practices — not as a way to get on God’s good side, but to remind a person that some of the habits or pleasures we enjoy and become accustomed to, are not essential. In religious terms, they are not God.

I started a “wellness” or “optimal health” program about three weeks ago now. (Apparently, we no longer call these things “diets.”) I wanted to take off about ten pounds that accumulated during the pandemic. Apparently, I’m not alone in a bit of pandemic weight gain.

As I began I made a list of my motivations for doing this. Two of them were right in line with what Brooks has touted. I wanted to re-set my senses, not just eat stuff mindlessly or sort of automatically. And I wanted to re-assert my control over my appetites, particularly for alcohol and sweets. And it’s worked. On top of that, I’ve lost my pandemic pounds.

Brooks makes one additional point about such chosen sacrifices. They work best if they come from love not fear. That lines up with the point I made about Lent in a blog last week on “Why Christianity Isn’t A Religion.” We don’t engage in our Lenten practices to get God to love us. We do them because we are loved, and want to keep ourselves available to that love by putting first things first.



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