The World Happiness Report, which has been regularly updated for the last 10 years, works with a complex set of definitions of what makes for happiness, for individuals and for societies. Finland regularly tops the chart of Happiest Countries in the world, which Finns find a bit puzzling, apparently. They don’t see themselves as cheerful, jolly people, but they do speak of a national characteristic that might be described as contentment. Contentment lays an axe to the roots of Greed. It allows us to see what we have and value it, rather than despising it because there are things we do not have.
One of the values that The World Happiness Report notes as making for greater happiness is altruism – doing good and receiving goodness from others makes both parties happier. The Christian tradition has known this for a long time. Cardinal Sins have their opposing Cardinal Virtues, dispositions that we can cultivate to help us to free ourselves from enslaving habits, like Greed. ‘Charity’ is the Cardinal Virtue that undermines the sin of Greed. When we give to others from our own resources, of time, money, attention, care, prayer, help of any kind, we begin to loosen the deadly grip of insatiable Greed upon ourselves and our world. Greed can’t live alongside Charity, or altruism; charity sees real people and situations in need, and supplies what it can from its own resources; Greed sees only more and more objects to be acquired, never able to see what it already has, never able to share or be content.
Deadly Sins lead to behaviour that makes for misery, both for those driven by them, and for those on the receiving end of them. That is why they are called ‘deadly’. They are not just a bit naughty; they are actively destructive of human flourishing, both personal and communal. There is so much in our society that positively encourages Greed, the reckless desire for More, which can never be satisfied. But there are ways of combatting this most pernicious of habits.
One is the practice of gratitude: instead of thinking about what we haven’t got, or would like to have, or what someone else has, we can think of what we have got, and think of it as gift, something to say thank you for. It’s a good habit to build into every day, perhaps as we go to bed, taking just a few minutes to think about the good things that have come to us that day: a child’s smile, a gleam of sunshine, a hug from a friend or partner, a delicious piece of bread; everyday things that we can take for granted, in which case they go unnoticed; or we can see that they are gifts to be grateful for, which enlarge our spirit and our wellbeing. Gratitude is a virtuous circle: it is lovely to be on the receiving end of gratitude, as well as to practice being grateful. And gratitude often leads to another excellent practice for undermining Greed, which is charity, or altruism. If we are learning how to say thank you for what we have, we may also want to share what we now notice that we have. If we’ve given the gift of gratitude, and seen how it makes us and the receiver feel, we may want to extend that further and further. Worth a try?