America has become a test case for the unbridled pursuit of happiness. Our culture places the individual – with his or her dreams, desires, wants, and needs – at the center where other cultures and times have placed family, religion, or community. But in our place and at our time it is the individual and his or her happiness which is supreme.
Selfishness and self-indulgence used to be vices; self-denial and sacrifice were virtues. Today it has been reversed. The greatest sin is to deny oneself; to not embrace what may potentially bring happiness and self-fulfillment. The good, moral person is the self-seeker who refuses to be held back or burdened in the pursuit of their desires. The new saints have climbed to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and donned the crown of self-actualization.
Thus, everything has become a means to the end of personal happiness and fulfillment. If children make you happy, have some; if they get in the way of your dreams then terminate the pregnancy. If a career makes you happy, chase it; if it gets in the way of your desires then go back to school. If marriage makes you happy, commit to it; if it gets in the way of your plans then divorce your spouse. If church makes you happy, attend it; if it interferes with your lifestyle then switch congregations. If a consumer product makes you happy, buy it; if something better comes along trash it.
The individual and their happiness is the center of American culture. In theory, this should produce a flourishing society full of happy people. But there may be problems with our happiness project. Our society is increasingly tasked with helping people cope with their “happy” lives. Ronald Dworkin points out in a 2010 Policy Review essay that the United States has seen a hundredfold increase in the number of professional caregivers since 1950. We have 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 105,000 mental health counselors, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, 30,000 life coaches, and hundreds of thousands of nonclinical social workers and substance abuse counselors as well. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, anti-depressant use among Americans increased 400% between 1994 and 2005.
The latest piece of news is also troubling. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and reported by CNN, for the first time in history more people died in 2010 from suicide than from car accidents. There were 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes and 38,364 suicides. The suicide rate rose 30% from 1999 to 2010 for Americans ages 35-64 with the rate rising nearly 50% for men in their 50’s. According to Julie Philips, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has published research on rising suicide rates, the current numbers are, if anything, too low. She says suicide is “vastly underreported…we know we’re not counting all suicides.”
The causes of suicide are complex and my purpose is not to attribute it to any particular factor or give it any singular explanation. However, increasing suicide rates and demands for caregivers and psychotropic drugs do give hints that there is trouble.
Something is broken in the American pursuit of happiness. Something all the technology making life easy and all the entertainment streaming at us cannot seem to fix.
Yet in the Christian worldview, happiness and fulfillment are not goals we aim for but effects found while aiming after greater goals. Those goals include love for God and love for others (Matt.22:37-39). Chasing these goals demands self-denial, sacrifice, and letting go of our individual desires for something greater. Blaise Pascal said it well:
“There once was in man a true happiness of which now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present. But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.”
This is not a trite “get God and be happy” answer. Many have “gotten” God only to turn Him into yet another means for their selfish pursuit of happiness. It is the difficult truth that only in surrendering our lives to something other than individual fulfillment will we ever find happiness.
There are signs that something is broken in the American pursuit of happiness. There are hints that its culture idolizing the individual and his or her fulfillment may be poisonous. The road looks promising, but its end is only destruction.