Why Pope Francis' 10 keys to happiness explain his popularity

by Robert Christian

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Editor's note: Michael Sean Winters is on vacation this week. Filling in for him are various writers from Millennial, a journal featuring the writing of millennial Catholics. Winters will be back next week.

In a recent interview, Pope Francis offered 10 guidelines to achieving greater happiness. These included:

  • Live and let live;
  • Be giving of yourself to others;
  • Be kind, humble, and calm;
  • Have a healthy sense of leisure;
  • Make Sundays a day for family time, not work;
  • Find dignified work for young people;
  • Care for creation;
  • Let go of the negative;
  • Inspire through witness and engage in dialogue; and
  • Promote peace.

These are great guidelines for living a happier life, a valuable contribution for everyone in our society looking for happiness in all the wrong places, whether in consumerism, casual sexual encounters, or alcohol and drugs. But beyond this practical assistance, these keys to happiness also reveal some of these reasons why Pope Francis has such a broad appeal, why this man in his late 70 has become an international rock star.

The joy that Pope Francis radiates, whether having dinner with his fellow Jesuits or meeting young married couples, is visible for all to see, and it draws people in and opens them up to hearing about the source of that joy. Those who are tired of living a mundane, bourgeois existence see something special in the way Pope Francis lives. His secrets to happiness provide some insight into that special quality that makes Pope Francis so captivating.

Pope Francis' willingness to "live and let live" seems clear. It is difficult to imagine him caught up in petty grievances and disputes. To stop clinging and grasping to past conflict is deeply liberating, and Pope Francis seems utterly free. He seeks dialogue rather than conflict. He looks to find common ground rather than to replay past disagreements.

This approach is tied in with another of his tips: to let go of the negative. Pope Francis knows that being a good Christian is not defined by denouncing those whom you view as inadequately Christian. He's the opposite of the culture warrior, who is always looking to incite conflict and hunt down heretics and apostates. He sees the good news as something that leads to joy, not perpetual agitation.

It is easy to get drawn into the negative and cling to conflict in a globalized world where differences of opinion frequently collide on social media and elsewhere. And there is nothing wrong with intellectual debate and defending the church's teaching, whether on the dignity of the refugee children on our nation's border, the plight of the unborn, or the travesty of global poverty. But the failure to live and let live -- the inability to break free from negativity -- is preventing people from having the contentment and experiencing the joy that we see in Pope Francis.

A big part of Pope Francis' appeal is his consideration of others and his respect for those who do not share all of his beliefs. It is not surprising to see him caution others to not proselytize. He prefers dialogue to attempted conversion through haranguing. He has promoted a "culture of encounter" and encouraged Christians to meet people where they are. And he has lived this, from his dialogue with atheists to his trip to the Holy Land.

Pope Francis has encouraged all of us who wish to be happy to give of ourselves to others. He discourages us from withdrawing into our own egocentric worlds. Over and over again, we have seen him do precisely this -- reach out to others, especially those on the margins, those exposed to the throwaway culture. After the heartbreaking drowning of unauthorized immigrants off the coast of Italy, he went to mourn those lost in the tragedy and to be with those migrants who had made it to their destination. On Holy Thursday, we saw him on his knees washing and kissing the feet of prisoners. As the Jesuit saying goes, he is truly "a man for others."

Despite all of the energy and enthusiasm that has surrounded his papacy, Pope Francis has carried on with an air of serenity and calmness. He has not gotten caught up in all the hoopla. He has remained the calm, kind, and humble man who assumed the papacy. His kindness and humility and the simplicity of his lifestyle, from paying his own bills to his style of dress to his phone calls to regular folks, have made a deep impression on the public. He is bearing witness to an alternative, countercultural lifestyle that contradicts our impoverished understanding of success.

Ultra-competitiveness in the pursuit of power, wealth, and acclaim can crowd out a richer, more fulfilled and balanced life where there is time for family, the enjoyment of art, and activities in the community. While Pope Francis himself does not have kids of his own, he has encouraged parents over and over again to make time for their kids and has encouraged our society to make it easier for parents to do so. He sees this, rather than the targets of culture war politics, as the gravest threat to families in the world today.

Finally, no description of Pope Francis would be complete without noting his commitment to social justice. In his tips for achieving greater happiness, he mentioned two of his central causes: caring for creation and reducing youth unemployment. His commitment to the dignity and worth of each person has consistently been on display. His apostolic letter, Evangelii Gaudium, showed his radical commitment to the poor. While many in the West, including many millennials, have moved away from organized religion, they retain a desire to help those in need. In Pope Francis, many see a humanistic concern for the most vulnerable. Only time will tell if his inspiring witness will lead people to embrace the faith that underpins this humanism.

[Robert Christian is editor of Millennial. He is a doctoral candidate in politics at The Catholic University of America and a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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