‘Lent can help us be happier by wanting less’

The feast before the fast: Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday” or Shrove Tuesday carnivals. © W. Wedmer

Today is Mardi Gras, the day before Lent. Millions will give things up. But why? Wouldn’t we be happier doing something more positive? Or can self-denial be more fulfilling than we suspect?

Today is Mardi Gras and celebrations will go worldwide. Millions will dress up and eat too much. There will be parades, picnics and pancakes based on the ancient idea of using up the supplies in the larder before 40 days of fasting begins.

Many people will soon give up little luxuries and addictions such as smoking, drinking or eating chocolate until Easter, inspired by the story of Jesus. Indeed, all major religions encourage periods of self-denial. “It reminds you of your own fragility and dependence,” says Christian philosopher Roger Scruton.

Another philosopher, Jules Evans, argues that the dominant economic model all around the world is based on promoting consumption – trying to make us want more, in other words. More goods, more, food, more housing, more travel.

But this is unsustainable environmentally. As a species, we will have to learn to limit our desires — to travel less, to waste less.

We should ask ourselves, he says, why we are on this planet. Perhaps the reason the Earth has seen fit to produce us is precisely because of our consciousness, our capacity for self-awareness and awareness of our environment.

If that is the case then our task as humans is to develop our consciousness to its highest level. As a culture, we are increasingly absorbed in exercising our bodies, in making the “body beautiful”. But we are also beginning to learn that we can train our minds, and make ourselves happier, in part by wanting less.

The modern psychotherapy and self-help movements are now full of such mental exercises. “Seven steps to happiness”, “Training in the Mind Gym”, “How to Change Your Thoughts” and so on, are really forms of asceticism or mind-training.

Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist, says restraining ourselves for short intervals may make us more resolute at other times. “Willpower is most accurately thought of as a muscle,” she argues. “Your brain and body get better at it when you practice it.”

Give it up

What rubbish! say some. When we give things up we become introspective. Our self-control does not last: many people who give up chocolate for Lent gorge on Easter eggs afterwards. It is too negative. How much better to take up a new hobby, be kinder or complete a challenge. We can broaden our minds and perhaps make a difference to others, not just ourselves.

Just try it, respond the modern ascetics. Anyone can take up a new fad for a few weeks; denying ourselves something we want is more humbling. It is a chance to set a precedent for the rest of the year — if we can avoid something for 40 days, we prove to ourselves that we do not need it. This is the true chance to improve ourselves and set ourselves free.

You Decide

  1. Will you give anything up for Lent?
  2. Is it better to give up something or take up something new?

Activities

  1. Make two lists: things you would find hard to give up, and things you would benefit from taking up. Discuss in pairs which would benefit you more.
  2. Try either giving something up or doing something new during Lent. Keep a diary of your experiences and report back to your class what you have learned at the end.

Some People Say...

“The rustic, the reader of novels, the pure ascetic: these three are truly happy.”

Fernando Pessoa

What do you think?

Q & A

I am not a Christian. Does this matter?
Millions of people around the world will mark Lent, and many others observe similar rituals in other religions. On Yom Kippur, for example, Jews traditionally eat and drink nothing for an entire day. These traditions are the product of many centuries of thinking, and may be very important to people you know.
But I’m not religious at all, and I am not going to observe Lent.
You could still learn a lot from those who do. You may already have an unhealthy habit which you would like to change; if you do not, you probably will at some point when you are older. And anyone can benefit from broadening their mind by taking up something new. Perhaps Lent is not your thing — but if so, you could benefit from considering what else you might do.

Word Watch

Mardi Gras
French for “Fat Tuesday”, for eating up richer, fatty foods. In English known as Shrove Tuesday, preceding Ash Wednesday (see below).
Worldwide
Exotic carnivals in cities such as Nice, New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro and Venice are particularly popular.
Jesus
According to the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days after being baptised.
Religions
For example, Muslims abstain during daylight hours of Ramadan; Buddhists fast during intense meditation to practise self-control.
Jules Evans
Author of Philosophy of Life and Other Dangerous Situations (Rider 2012).
Asceticism
Severe form of self-discipline and avoidance of all types of indulgence. Typically practised for religious reasons.
Kelly McGonigal
Author of The Willpower Instinct (Penguin 2012).
Lent
In the Christian calendar the period of penitence runs from Ash Wednesday (when penitents mark their foreheads with ashes as a sign of repentance) to Easter. Deeply significant in Christianity, it is followed by Easter Sunday. Easter and its symbolism coincide with the celebration of spring.

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