Journalist Jo Piazza is not religious, but spending time with a group of nuns for her new book made her a happier person—here’s why.
We love to talk about happiness. You know the kind of talk that I’m referring to. It always starts with someone saying something like, “I’m working on me.” And from there, they proceed to tell you about all of the things they are doing to make themselves happier. It always seems to involve spin classes at studios that charge $40 for instructors to tell you you’re awesome.
The book The Happiness Project was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. The Pharrell song “Happy” is the most played song of 2014. Someone sent me a link to a website the other day called Happify—a company that promises to train your brain to be happy. Among other things, the site features inspirational quotes and videos of cats.
Happiness has become something we need to practice. It’s a science. It’s something we need professional coaches for.
It has to be easier than all of that.
I’ve recently discovered a very happy group of individuals: Catholic nuns. You’re skeptical. I can tell. They aren’t paying for expensive spin classes or buying happiness manuals or downloading happiness-inducing apps. Over the past three years, I have hung out with more than 300 American nuns while working on my book If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission.
“Nuns? Really?” you want to know. “Aren’t they stuffy? Uptight? Angry? Wielding rulers above the hands of small children?”
Not the ones I know.
The women I met are funny, engaging, brilliant, independent, and fierce. They are doers. They don’t talk about being happy or being content. They just wake up every morning and do the things they believe will make the world a better place. Some of them fight for the poor. Some of them work with women in prisons. One of them broke into a nuclear weapons facility to protest nuclear war. She is now in prison. But I know she’s content, and she’s probably even happy there. Before she went away she told me very simply: “If I go in, I will observe the goodness of the women. I could minister to the women and them to me.” She said it with a smile on her face.
The nuns I’ve met are focused on the present. They live for the here and now. They lead authentic lives. They do good things; things that matter. They don’t ask for anything in return. They don’t brag. They don’t gossip.
They tell amazing jokes. When they laugh, you’ll laugh, too. In fact, just being around nuns made me a happier person.
You’re probably cocking your head right now and raising your eyebrows. “How could hanging around with nuns make anyone happier? Happiness is $40 spin classes and videos of cats trying to climb into boxes!”
Consider this: Maybe happiness is just being around people who do what they truly love. Sara Marks is one of the few nuns I spent time with who is close to my age. When Sara was deciding whether or not she wanted to become a nun, she was also going out on dates with men. One day she realized that spending time in a community of happy women who were dedicating their lives to helping others just made her happier. So that is the life she chose.
Joy is contagious. I felt it whenever I was with the nuns and I felt it afterward. They made me want to do things instead of just talking about doing them. They made me want to smile instead of just thinking about how great it would be to smile more.
Nuns are happy because they do what they love. They practice gratitude. They have meaning and purpose in their lives, and these particular women have helped me to find some in mine. And they also love a good cat video.