Christmas – A quest for true happiness

The good news is that the government started recognising the stark truth about poverty by embarking on an EU-funded scheme to distribute food hampers to families in need

Whatever else Christmas may be about, it is definitely not any longer exclusively focused on the spiritual origins marking the birth of Baby Jesus. The commercialisation of the holy feast has been marching ahead without any constraint and islanders (with some exceptions) now purely seek hedonistic pleasures faking the holy feast with lavish exchanges of gifts and  attendance of exquisite banquets and other merry making.

So with this in mind, can anyone blame us that during Christmas lunch or dinner we follow an English tradition acquired over years of colonization, to eat like kings. A popular meal is roast turkey stuffed with mince meat seasoned with roast potatoes,  Brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce, which for a number of years has become as emblematic of the festive season as tinsel, pudding, flashing lights on balconies or presents at the foot of a tree.

Hence supermarkets and celebrity chefs alike go into overdrive at this time of year. Even non-foodies will obsess about using goose fat and fresh cranberries.

So what does this say about us? Has poverty been eliminated? Not so fast – yet the good news is that the government started recognising the stark truth about poverty by embarking on an EU-funded scheme to distribute food hampers to families in need.

This gesture was received with aplomb and not unlike a jovial Father Christmas, the social solidarity minister, Michael Farrugia announced triumphantly a project to provide people with heavy food packages weighing between 10-15kg. Not a small amount but of course this is a recognition that there are persons who have fallen in the poverty trap.

Food parcels financed out of an EU fund will cheer the recipients with a bounty of pasta, vegetables, cereals and powdered milk. No meat, as we are careful about cholesterol levels and care is taken to reduce salt and sugar content in anticipation of sufferers from diabetes and high blood pressure.

The minister announced as if in a Christmas Carol sequel that such packages will be available for families with over one child under 16 who receive means-tested and non-contributory benefits, families with over one child under 16 who earn less than the minimum wage, and non-single families who receive an elderly pension.

This time not a gift from Ebenezer but coming from an EU fund which aims to donate healthy food packages with a supplementary box weighing 10 kg for the more vulnerable families.

This begs the question: with such a vast array of social benefits who are the vulnerable souls who are not covered by our intricate welfare safety net. Facing reality our politicians have woken up to the stark truth that while statistics show a higher standard of living, yet life is full of trials and tribulations – the penny dropped that the poor are suffering in silence.

Philosophers will tell us that for every trial that we go through in life, our faith, patience, and strength are tested as families encounter hardships, but we can always choose to fight challenges and face it with hope and conviction as trials are part of life. Poverty can be defined in many ways and unfortunately its causes are deep and cannot be eradicated by giving out parcels of dry food.

In modern times, families face many social problems which they simply cannot evade; but if such problems are handled well, social workers advised us that these can strengthen us, build our character, and reinforce our Christian faith.

Therefore, as a small nation next year we face poverty with conviction, knowing that solidarity from richer members of the community can help the poor  face it as courageously as they can. Families who have tasted the pangs of poverty should never give up or lose hope when nothing seems to go right.

Their quest for happiness seems so burdened with barriers that they can hardly bear to smile even during such festive times. Can our contributions to Dar tal-Providenza contribute a ray of hope to the less fortunate during the festive season, when generosity seems to be the buzz word?

Poverty comes in all shapes and sizes and families may feel underprivileged due to relationships among friends that have gone sour, loss of a job or family discontent which may lead to bitter separations or divorce. Such problematic marital and family relationships (such as losing a job) impinge on our ability to enjoy almost anything.

It is true that in most cases such misfortunes do arise from careless handling of individual differences and lack of communication and keeping quality time together. Our quest for happiness for 2016, may prove to be more successful if only we focus on the other party’s positive qualities rather than extenuate negatives.

As our social minister has suggested during a press conference announcing the issue of food baskets… it is always advisable to give generously. Hooray – internal happiness will be our precious reward. Quoting George Sheehan ‘happiness is different from pleasure, it has something to do with struggling and enduring and accomplishing’.

Really and truly, ‘happiness’ does not mean living a life of pleasure. It is an old paradox, as the ancient Roman poet Horace attempted to answer it when he wrote; ‘Not the owner of many possessions will you be right to call happy: he more rightly deserves the name of happy who knows how to use the God’s gifts wisely and to put up with rough poverty, and who fears dishonour more than death’.

The definition seems a noble sentiment but by sheer contrast quoting the Greek Sophist Phrasymachus in his opinion, this Stoic attitude was the epitome of moral weakness. For him poverty was miserable, and happiness flowed seamlessly from wealth (e.g. – a fat Swiss bank account) and power over men, an idea so persuasive that Plato wrote The Republic in a strong response to challenge it.

It is alleged by the Opposition that 100,000 persons in Malta feel the pangs of poverty – so can one label them as an unhappy lot according to Phrasymachus’s philosophy? Certainly not. In the 21st century, one may question how accessible is our quest for the Holy Grail of happiness given our national pastime of negativity arising out of deep partisan politics.

This measure of subjective well-being correlates with income and conventional measures of prosperity or substandard of living, but only up to a fairly low threshold, and beyond that point the correlation gets much less strong, if it does not disappear altogether, and so this is just confirming what we all knew, that money doesn’t buy happiness, at least not beyond a certain point.

Certainly the food baskets offered to 4,000 families next year will add material well-being to render them more comfortable and secure, but beyond that point other things are much more important to well-being and happiness.

This article argues that it is really the non-material things that have a bigger influence on people’s sense of happiness and well-being. Whereas today happiness is all too often associated with pleasure, fast cars, leisure yachts, owning a villa in Madliena or booking holidays at a ski resort to be seen rubbing shoulders with the jet set crowd.

At another extreme, party apologists are poised to extenuate best chances how to secure a top seat in political positions of trust. Lesser mortals harbour a concern about the bits and pieces that make up a good life rather than a love of the good itself.

To conclude, drawing on the thoughts of the ancient Greek philosophers, wellbeing (and happiness) challenges us to think about values and our spiritual beliefs, to discover a sense of place in the universe, and to work out what we love and how to love it. In doing so, a sense of wellbeing and collective happiness is shown to be within the grasp of us all.

 A Merry Christmas to all readers.