On April 21, our congregation in Lake Helen, with Christians all over the world, celebrated with flowers, candles and music our belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We affirmed that death is not the final word and that love wins.
We also learned about a 20-year-long study of the spread of happiness, by James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, that was published in The British Medical Journal. The aim was to “evaluate whether happiness can spread from person to person and whether niches of happiness form within social networks.”
Their test group was 4,739 individuals followed from 1983 to 2003 by the Framingham Heart Study. And, the results?
“Clusters of happy and unhappy people are visible in the network, and the relationship between people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends).
“People who are surrounded by many happy people and those who are central in the network are more likely to become happy in the future.
“Longitudinal statistical models suggest that clusters of happiness result from the spread of happiness and not just a tendency for people to associate with similar individuals. A friend who lives within a mile and who becomes happy increases the probability that a person is happy by 25 percent. Similar effects are seen in spouses, siblings, and next door neighbors.”
Joy is powerful. It has measurable effects on the health of individuals and whole communities. Our celebration of Easter is designed to create “clusters of happiness,” not only in our church but throughout the world, one interaction at a time.
But, we rejoiced this week against a backdrop of tragedy: the death by suicide of a DeLand High School student, and the horrific violence in Sri Lanka. Violence is also social, and its effects are widespread, even for those who are not direct victims.
It is critical for the health of our whole community that we encircle the students and teachers and families of DeLand High with our love and our prayers in the coming days. Unfortunately, there will be people who will want to point fingers, to assign blame, to shame those most affected.
That will not lead to healing. Friends and mentors need reassurance and support in the face of the painful and unanswerable questions that follow suicide.
We cannot undo what has happened, but as Christians, we hold on to the promise that “nothing can separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:39).
The Sri Lankan tragedy is a sobering reminder that love and unity don’t come easily or quickly, even after peace has been declared. Healing is mysterious and unpredictable.
The agents of healing in the coming weeks will be varied: music jams and tear-stained poems, hugs at the convenience store and notes tucked into lunches, public proclamations and private reminders.
Just as the effects of violence ripple through a community and through the world, so the effects of caring words and actions spread through social networks and bring hope to those who are grieving.
That is our work in this season after Easter, and we invite even people who aren’t interested in our particular tradition to find their own ways to increase happiness in the world around them.
The teenagers, their families and friends and the wider community around them need the support of “niches of happiness” that we create.
Joy has power, and in the end, love wins.
— McCaffrey is pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ of Lake Helen.