Matthew McKay and Jeffrey C. Wood, The New Happiness: Practices for Spiritual Growth and Living with Intention. Reveal Press, Oakland, CA, 2019.
By John Gillman
This book’s title seems to imply that a novel discovery about happiness has been uncovered. In contrast to the “old” happiness, which the authors define as based on the acquisitions of money and possessions, they argue that “new” happiness stems from values and actions; it is a process, they claim, of “doing” rather than “believing.” Coincidentally, I’m writing this on a Sunday when the day’s Gospel reading is about the path taken by a rich man to acquire “old happiness.” His approach was to build larger barns to store his bountiful harvest, enabling him to spend many years resting, eating, drinking, and being merry (Luke 12:13-21). Readers of this review will probably remember that it didn’t turn out well for him.
Stating that they want to avoid the debates about God, spirituality, and religion, these authors — neither of whom belongs to an organized religion — intend to offer a secular guide to spirituality. They steer clear of the wisdom offered by religious traditions until chapter 12, when they draw upon the insight of the Buddha, who taught that suffering arises for those who fail to grasp that all things are impermanent. That weakens their argument for novelty. And to cite the Christian tradition, the teachings of Jesus and the values highlighted by Paul — see for example the “fruits of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22-23) — would suggest that the secret to genuine happiness is not really new at all.
On the positive side, the worksheets included throughout the book may be useful in identifying values (chapter 2), evaluating choices (chapter 3), coping with pain (chapter 4), practicing deep meditation (chapter 5), identifying life purpose (chapter 6), rehearsing values-based actions (chapter 7), gaining wisdom from the Spirit, vaguely defined as entity or source (chapter 8), identifying barriers in living one’s spiritual values (chapter 9), being compassionate to self and others (chapter 10), making amends (chapter 11), using the lens of impermanence (chapter 12), finding a “state of grace,” viewed “not [as] a gift from God,” but something you give yourself (chapter 13), and making a long-term spiritual action plan (chapter 14).
However … the authors, while maintaining their secular perspective, would have enriched their discussion by dialoguing with what philosophers and teachers (even religious ones) through the ages have learned about the true nature of happiness.
John Gillman, BCC, is adjunct professor at the Franciscan School of Theology at University of San Diego.