Every recent poll agrees, American optimism is dying.
When asked if “life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us,” fully 76 percent said they do not have such confidence. Only 21 percent did. That was the worst ever recorded in the poll; in 2001, 49 percent were confident and 43 percent not.
And it’s not confined to one group either. The rich are as down as the poor, women are as down as men, blacks are as down as whites. Young people are only slightly less depressed than the old. Democrats are marginally happier than grumpy Republicans. Dana Milbank concludes:
The gloom goes beyond wealth, gender, race, region, age and ideology. This fractious nation is united by one thing: lost faith in the United States.
Even with the economy recovering, albeit slowly, the pessimism endures. Numerous pundits have weighed in with their analysis. Dana Milbank puts it down partly to income inequality (which I think is a euphemism for envy), but mainly to a complete breakdown of people’s faith in the political system to do anything constructive about the problems facing society.
The New York Mag blames the torrent of bad news the media is feeding us 24/7 producing a widespread sense that the world is falling apart.
The Wall Street Journal points to five factors:
- We are in lousy health with an epidemic of obesity.
- Stress due to health problems or overwhelming responsibilities.
- The lifestyles of the rich and famous are making us jealous.
- Our wages are stagnant
- We work too much, far more than most other nations.
So, any hope of smiley faces in the midst of so much doom and gloom?
There are three things that have to change if we are to regain our smiles. First, we need to re-define happiness. As I’ve written elsewhere, the founding fathers of America had a very different view of happiness to most people today.
In his 2005 lecture at the National Conference on Citizenship, US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said that for the framers of the Declaration of Independence, “Happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.”
That’s so different to the kind of temporary and shallow pleasure-based view of happiness that’s so widespread today.
Second, it’s going to take hard work. Happiness rarely lands on our plates, dropped there by the government, our boss, or God. No, happiness is a “pursuit,” meaning it requires hard work - hard mental work, hard physical work, hard spiritual work.
If you look at the majority of the causes highlighted by the analysts, you’ll see that they blame external factors for our unhappiness. But if my happiness is dependent on events outside my control, then there’s nothing I can do about my emotional state. I just become a passive fatalist. What will be will be.
But if I’m told that I’m responsible for pursuing happiness even in the midst of so many storm clouds out there, that gets me motivated and active.
Christians have a big opportunity here to shine in the midst of the darkness. And we can do that not just with the light of biblical knowledge but with the light of biblical joy – which will get us a better hearing for biblical truth. We need to show that happiness, true spiritual happiness, can be enjoyed independently of uncontrollable events, trends, and changes in the world and in our personal lives.
Remember, Philippians, the Epistle of joy, was written from a prison. And so much of that joy was rooted in contentment (Phil. 4:11), which is in incredibly short supply judging by these media reports.
But how, how, how do we do it? The same way as Paul did it; with happy theology. Consider this small sample of happy truths, truths that are true regardless of whats going on in our lives and our world:
- We love and are loved by the one true and living God.
- We know Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
- Our sins are forgiven.
- We are justified and adopted into God’s world-wide and heaven-wide family.
- Everything is working together for our good.
- The Holy Spirit is sanctifying and empowering us.
- We have all the promises of God.
- Jesus has prepared a place for us in heaven and will welcome us there.
What truths have you found keep your spirits up in this depressing world?