31 July. Proverbs chapters 16-18
We continue with three more chapters of Solomon’s brief sayings. I am going to focus on a few that tie in with the book I am reading at present.
“Those who are attentive to a matter will prosper, and happy are those who trust in the Lord. “ (16:20); “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones. “ (17:22) “The human spirit will endure sickness; but a broken spirit—who can bear?” (18:14). These all address the problem of human happiness. The book I am reading is “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind “by Yuval Noah Harari. Towards the end, he considers whether human progress and civilisation have made people happier.
By looking at happiness as a relative concept (experience relative to expectation) rather than something absolute, he concludes that it is not. On that view, the people of Solomon’s time, most of whom lived what we would now call a deprived existence (unheated homes, untreated water, no sewerage, high infant mortality, and the ever-present threat of war) would actually be no less ‘happy’ than an ordinary worker living in Britain today. That is because, if his understanding of psychology is correct, each person is genetically predisposed to be either happy (the “cheerful heart”), unhappy (the “broken or downcast spirit”), or somewhere in between. Temporary circumstances such as a birth or marriage on the one hand, or illness or bereavement on the other, may make a short term difference, but after a while we revert to our default level. Fortunately I am one of the happy ones.
These proverbs seem to be saying something similar, with one difference. Harari, although of Jewish background, takes an agnostic and utilitarian view of religion, seeing religious beliefs as myths that help people get through life and form communities, rather than representing any real truth. But for those who do believe, happiness is associated not just with a genetic predisposition but with “trust in the Lord”. To believe that there is an ultimate power who created you, loves you and guides you through good and bad times – that is more than even a “cheerful heart” can bring