From a column in the LA Times this week:
In a new book, "Stumbling on Happiness," Harvard psychology professor
Daniel Gilbert suggests that happiness is largely an anticipatory
experience. Human beings, he explains, are the only animals that have
the ability to think about the future. As a result, we spend much of
our time not so much experiencing pleasure as thinking about future
pleasure and taking steps to ensure its attainment.
In other words, most of us spend our time chasing after happiness rather than actually experiencing it. No matter what we achieve, it is never enough. Mr Gilbert is not the only one to have noticed this.
As Ilya Shapiro explains in an article on the Tech Central
Station , he and many of his fellow Gen-xers have achieved a great deal
of what the world considers success, but, in the words of U2, they still
haven’t found what they are looking for.
[We have made it to the top of our professions] and although
it makes us sound like spoiled brats (and me narcissistic for writing about it)
— we’re not happy. Or, rather, after a (relatively short) lifetime of playing
by the rules, eating our greens, graduating from high school, then college,
then grad school or whatever other apprenticeship takes up our
early-to-mid-20s, and finally starting work in the real world we’ve come to realize
that there’s more to life than taking an anointed spot in the meritocracy.
We were told by our parents (and Billy Joel) that if we
worked hard, if we behaved, we would achieve the good life. Well, we’ve
achieved! Achieved!! ACHIEVED!!! and now… what?
David Brooks take note: Generation X has arrived, made
its presence felt, looked around, and is wondering, "Is that all there
It is a conversation I keep having, or talking around,
with my friends and peers — the type of folks who 20 years ago would have been
called yuppies (which label I at least am happy to wear now, if in a
descriptive rather than ascriptive way). They — we — have everything we could
ever want in this stage of life, but still we search for meaning.
Young adults are not the only ones
living unhappy, meaningless lives. Baby boomers are in exactly the same boat. In his book The Progress Paradox, Gregg
Easterbrook notes that while our current standard of living far surpasses any
of our ancestors, our level of happiness has not increased at all.
Suppose your great-great
grandparents, who lived four generations ago, materialized in the United States of the present day.Surely they would first be struck
by the scale and clamour of present-day life, and might not like these things;
neither do we, necessarily….
Yet as your [they] learned more of
contemporary life, they would be dazzled. Unlimited food at affordable prices,
never the slightest worry about shortages, unlimited variety – strawberries in
March! – so much to eat that in the Western nations, overindulgence now plagues
not just the well-off but the poor, the poor being more prone to obesity than
the population as a whole. …
Many other aspect of contemporary
life, taken for granted by those who live it, would dazzle our recent
ancestors. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the average American
lifespan was forty-one years; now it is seventy-seven years, equating to almost
twice as much time on Earth for the typical person. History’s plagues – polio,
smallpox, measles, rickets – have been defeated, along with a stunning
reduction of the infectious diseases that for pre-antibiotics generations
instilled terror. …
Easterbrook goes on to point out
other aspects of contemporary life that “would strike our recent ancestors as
nearly miraculous” such as the end of backbreaking physical toil for most wage
earners, instantaneous global communication and same day travel to distant
cities, the end of formal discrimination, mass homeownership and incredible
advances of freedom.
Today we live a long time, in
fairly comfortable circumstances; enjoy goods and services in almost unlimited
supply; travel where we wish quickly and relatively cheaply; talk to anyone in
the world; know everything there is to know; think and say what we please;
marry for love, and have sex with whom ever will agree; and wail in sorrow when
anyone dies young, for this once-routine event has become a wrenching rarity.
All told, except for the clamor and speed of society, and for the trends in
popular music, your great-great-grandparents might say the contemporary United States is the realization of Utopia.
But it isn’t Utopia. Easterbrook concludes
by saying that although everything is better, we are not happy.
Yet how many of us feel positive
about our moment, or even believe that life is getting better? Today Americans
tell pollsters that the country is going downhill; that their parents had it
better; that they feel unbearably stressed out; that their children face a
declining future. …The percentage of Americans who
describe themselves as “happy” has not budged since the 1950s, though the
typical persons real income has more than doubled through that period.
Happiness has not increased in Japan or Western Europe in the past
half-century, either, though daily life in both those places has grown
fantastically better, incorporating all the advances noted above plus the end
of dictatorships and recovery from war…[Even in a era of abundance and social
progress] the citizens of the United States and the European Union, almost all
of whom live better than almost all of the men and women in history, entertain
We are like Solomon, the writer of
Ecclesiastes. He achieved everything he could think of to achieve and got for
himself everything he could think of to acquire, yet he was still unhappy.
I denied myself nothing my eyes
desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my
labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to
achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was
gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11)
So I hated life, because the work
that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a
chasing after the wind. (2:17)
Here is the answer to our dilemma: The reason
nothing on earth satisfies our innermost longings is that we do not actually
long for anything on this earth. As C.S. Lewis argues in Mere Christianity,
That other world is Heaven. That is
what we are missing. Our deepest problem on earth is that we do not belong
here. We were created to live in the presence of God and living anywhere else
will leave us unfulfilled. We are homesick. In the words of Randy Alcorn,
Nothing is more often misdiagnosed than our
homesickness for Heaven. We think that what we want is sex, drugs, alcohol, a
new job, a raise, a doctorate, a spouse, a large-screen television, a new car,
a cabin in the woods, a condo in Hawaii.
What we really want is the person we were made for, Jesus, and the place we
were made for, Heaven. Nothing less can satisfy us.
According to the Bible, humans were created to live
with God and were put in a place where they could do that, the Garden of Eden.
However, because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, our first parents were expelled
from their natural home and exiled from God. They found themselves living on a
planet gone awry. So do we.
This actually should present a certain sense of
relief to all those who have been struggling to find happiness. G.K. Chesterton
writes how glad he was to learn this fact:
[A]ccording to Christianity, we [are] the survivors
of a wreck, the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning
of the world….
I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the
too evident blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been
false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to
prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact
that we do not fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling
myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God.
But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had
been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and
better than all things. The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on
the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt
on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern
philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I
had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in
the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The
knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of
infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green
beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.