Friday, April 28, 2017

The Great American Search for Happiness Leads to Unhappiness


My idea is this: 


  • The more secular a culture becomes, the more utilitarianism rules as an ethical framework.
  • The more utilitarianism rules, virtue ethics recedes, and "right" and "wrong" and "good" and "evil" and "ought" and "should" (as ethical terms) disappear from our ethical vocabulary.
  • These words are replaced by "pleasure," "pain," "happiness," and "unhappiness." 
  • So, the rise of "happiness" is predictable on rising secularism (by "secularism" I mean the sort of thing Charles Taylor means in his A Secular Age). 
Lori Gotlieb, in "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy," writes about the American obsession with "happiness," and the American parental goal of raising one's children to be very, very "happy."

Gotlieb says that "Nowadays, it’s not enough to be happy—if you can be even happier. The American Dream and the pursuit of happiness have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way." Ironically, this way of thinking will end up making people very unhappy and in need of a lot of therapy to set them straight."

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, says, in a fit of a silliness, "Happiness doesn't always make you happy." By this I think she means to say something like: "To make 'happiness' one's life pursuit will not end up with you being 'happy.' Or perhaps: "If you mean by 'happiness' the removal of anything that would unsettle or disappoint or trouble you, then the achievement of that will leave you miserable and in need of help." 

Gotlieb confirms: "Modern social science backs her [Rubin] up on this. “Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing,” Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College, told me. “But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.” It’s precisely this goal, though, that many modern parents focus on obsessively—only to see it backfire. Observing this phenomenon, my colleagues and I began to wonder: Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults?"

The answer is: yes. Happiness sought for its own sake will leave you miserable. The only happiness worth happening is happiness as a byproduct. Parents, therefore, must allow unhappiness and misery and even (yikes!) the dreaded "boredom" in the lives of their children. To shelter them from such things is to destine them to an adulthood of psycho- and drug therapy. "Parental overinvestment is contributing to a burgeoning generational narcissism that’s hurting our kids." (See also what M.I.T.'s Sherry Turkle says about the importance of boredom in a child's life, in Reclaiming Conversation.)

Harvard child psychologist Dan Kindlon says, “You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle."

Why might parents try to protect their children from all unhappy events and work hard so as to make them eternally happy? One answer is: because it's really about the parents' own happiness, and not their children's. Read the entire Gotlieb article to see the reasoning behind this.

Infants and toddler narcissists are happy because they are the center of the universe. As they grow older this changes; indeed, it becomes a "big problem." So parents - do not "protect" your child from negative feedback.

Theistic philosopher J.P. Moreland has written about this in The Lost Virtue of Happiness. J.P. presented chapter 1 of this text at our HSRM/Green Lake conference a few years ago. You can watch a video of J.P. speaking on this here. A heads-up: J.P. is a brilliant philosopher, but appears clueless when it comes to fashion. If one does not buy into the idea that trendy clothes will make you happy, then J.P. is a free man. The bullets are:

  • American people are addicted to happiness, and they overemphasize its importance in life.
  • If, right now, you are not tremendously happy, that's OK.
  • Yet, in America, if you are not happy, or your children are not happy, it seems like the world is falling apart.
  • Given the American emphasis on happiness, are Americans happy?
  • The answer, says Moreland (drawing on Martin Seligman's research), is that the rate of depression and loss of happiness has increased, in the span of just one generation in America, tenfold. We Americans are not a bunch of happy campers! We have an epidemic of depression and an epidemic of the loss of happiness.
  • Yet the Boomer generation is twice as rich, a lot healthier, more youthful, and a lot safer than our predecessors were 50 years ago. These are the kind of things that have defined the "American Dream." We are now living in this "Dream." We have more discretionary time. We have more money. It takes longer to age. So we feel younger, longer. J.P. says: "There's just one problem with this. All of this has not only not made Americans happier, we're slowly getting worse."
  • Why is this happening? Seligman's answer is this. "The Baby Boom generation forgot how to live for something bigger than they were." Americans have been taught to get up each morning and live for their own selves and try to find meaning in their own lives, rather than live for something other than their own well-being and bigger than they are.
  • From Moses to Solomon, to Plato and Aristotle, to Jesus and Augustine and Aquinas, to the Reformers al the way up to the 1900s, everybody meant the same thing by 'happiness.' But from the 1920s/30s on a new definition of 'happiness' was introduced and lived by. This new definition of 'happiness' is: "a feeling of pleasurable satisfaction." (See here, e.g.)
  • "Happiness' has become a positive feeling. Moreland is not against positive feelings; he'd rather experience them then their opposite. But there are two problems with this definition of happiness: 1) pleasurable feelings are not a big enough thing to build your life around; and 2) the more you try to get of it the less of it you have. "The best way to be happy is largely to forget about it."
  • Now watch this. 1) If 'happiness' is the feeling you have, say, when your team wins; and 2) the goal of life is to be happy, which means to retain that kind of feeling; then 3) your goal this year is make make sure that your job, your spouse, your church, your children, etc., help you that positive feeling named 'happiness.' All the aforenamed things (job, wife) are but means to making you happy. If a man's 4-year-old wife doesn't make him "happy" he may trade her in for a 20-year-old woman that gives him that hap-hap-happy feeling.
  • The ancient definition of 'happiness,' used by Aristotle and contained in the word eudamonia, is: to live a life of wisdom, character, and virtue." Plato thought it would be terrible if all a person did was spend his life worrying about whether he was good-looking, wealthy, and healthy. Solomon tells us that the happy person is the one who lives his life wisely reverencing and fearing God. In the New Testament the happy person is the person who looks like Jesus of Nazareth and lives the way he lives.
  • How do you get that? See Matthew 16:24-26, where Jesus says: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it." Jesus is not here commanding us to do this. He is saying, if you want to get good at life, this is what you have to do.
  • If you want to get good at life, if you want to be "happy," then learn daily to give yourself away for the sake of God and others. J.P. says, "Give yourself away to other people for the Kingdom's sake."
  • If you do that, you end up finding yourself. That's the upside-down logic of Jesus. "Happiness makes a terrible goal. It is the byproduct of another goal, which is giving yourself away to others for the Kingdom's sake."

"Happiness" studies now abound. In "Happiness: Beyond the Data," U of Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting writes:
"Happiness studies are booming in the social sciences, and governments are moving toward quantitative measures of a nation’s overall happiness, meant to supplement traditional measures of wealth and productivity."

But, as I said above, Gutting agrees that the pursuit of happiness does not lead to happiness. When the purpose of life becomes the bucket-list pursuit of pleasure, unhappiness and disquietude results. How so? Gutting writes:

"The danger — particularly for a society as rich as ours — is making pleasure the central focus in the pursuit of a happy life. This is done explicitly in some versions of utilitarian ethics, which regard happiness as simply the maximal accumulation of pleasurable experiences. But pleasures themselves often induce a desire for their repetition and intensification, and without moderation from a reflective mind, they can marginalize the work that lies at the core of true happiness.
A pathology of pleasures is often signaled by an obsession with not “missing out” on particularly attractive pleasures and strong disappointment when a highly anticipated experience does not meet expectations. (Examples from the world of food and wine are widely available.) In my view, the best strategy to avoid “hedonic corruption” of happiness is to welcome wholeheartedly the pleasures that come our way but not to make the explicit pursuit of pleasure a dominating part of our life project. The same, of course, applies to the money that is so often the price of pleasure."

Life, real life, is not gained in the pursuit of pleasure. 

Note for church leaders and pastors: Many of your people are happiness-seekers rather than Jesus-followers. Do not make it your objective to keep your people happy. It won't work. 
The Great American Search for Happiness leads to unhappiness. That's what philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote years ago. Hoffer said: “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” 

"This obsessive, driven, relentless pursuit is a characteristically American struggle — the exhausting daily application of the Declaration of Independence. But at the same time this elusive MacGuffin is creating a nation of nervous wrecks. Despite being the richest nation on earth, the United States is, according to the World Health Organization, by a wide margin, also the most anxious, with nearly a third of Americans likely to suffer from an anxiety problem in their lifetime. America’s precocious levels of anxiety are not just happening in spite of the great national happiness rat race, but also perhaps, because of it."
- Ruth Whippman, "America the Anxious" (nytimes, September 22, 2012)

Whippman continues:

"The American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety. The initial sense of promise and hope is seductive, but it soon gives way to a nagging slow-burn feeling of inadequacy. Am I happy? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could I be doing more about it? Even basic contentment feels like failure when pitched against capital-H Happiness. The goal is so elusive and hard to define, it’s impossible to pinpoint when it’s even been achieved — a recipe for neurosis."

This makes sense to me. Our age, writes Elaine Showalter in The Chronicle of Higher Education, is an age of anxiety

In  How Everyone Became Depressed: The Rise and Fall of the Nervous Breakdown, medical historian Edward Shorter says that "It has not escaped many observers that today we are drenched in anxiety." Psychiatrist Jeffrey Kahn states that "commonplace anxiety and depressive disorders" affect at least 20% of Americans. That's 60 million people. In our pursuit of happiness we have become depressingly unhappy. (See Kahn, Angst: Origins of Anxiety and Depression) Woo-hoo, right?

Academics are particularly unhappy and depressed, argues University of Texas professor Ann Cvetkovich, in Depression: A Public Feeling. She writes:

Academe "breeds particular forms of panic and anxiety leading to what gets called depression—the fear that you have nothing to say, or that you can't say what you want to say, or that you have something to say but it's not important enough or smart enough."

Instead of happiness, opt for blessedness. The Jesus-idea of "happiness" is the promise of "blessedness." 

  • Blessedness is independent of material or social conditions. 
  • Blessedness is not to be pursued for its own sake, since to do so would cause it to suffer the same infelicitous fate as meets all whose life goal is "happiness." 
  • Blessedness is an indirect byproduct of the pursuit of God and the love of others, for their own sake and not for what you can get. One gives one's life away for God and others and thereby gains life. 
This is, precisely, anti-American in its non-consumerism. The result is a blessed life.

(On the American marketing of happiness see William Davies, The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being.)