Happiness as Other People
Some things are found just about everywhere in the world. Tossed-aside plastic bags are one, and in some deserts they far outnumber cacti or its equivalent -- a disheartening environmental fact. Another thing, however, is prayer, in its myriad forms, and it is often very beautiful. See and hear, for instance, a sunset puja on the Ganges River in Rishikesh, India.
The sound and scene of a Muslim prayer is also striking. Particularly in very large gatherings, the swooshing sound of thousands of individuals descending to their knees grips the ear, as does the silence that immediately follows. Even smaller congregations, such as the one in Bethlehem's Manger Square (above), gives the outside viewer pause. The sound may be less, but the communal nature remains.
In Eric Weiner's very readable book The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, he takes note of the communal aspect of Muslim prayer, and theorizes on its power -- and the power of camaraderie in general.
Muslims pray five times a day. This is what the Koran ordains. Why five times? Why not four or six? Only Allah knows, but when Islam sprouted in the Arabian desert some 1,400 years ago, one function the new religion served, intentionally or not, was to bring people together. The mandatory prayer got people out of their own tents and into bigger, communal tents and, eventually, mosques.
Some 1,300 years later, the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre metaphorically spat on the notion of communal bliss by declaring, "Hell is other people."
Sartre was wrong. Either that, or he was hanging out with the wrong people. Social scientists estimate that about 70 percent of our happiness stems from our relationships, both quantity and quality, with friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors. During life's difficult patches, camaraderie blunts our misery; during the good times, it boosts our happiness.