I am again indebted to Steve Sternberg for bringing thought-provoking articles to my attention. This piece about how Americans pursue happiness in all the wrong places confirms my theory that true happiness is a by-product of higher primary pursuits. I am also reminded of how $50 can pay for room board and tuition for a student for an entire semester at the Asian Christian Academy in India. In Mark Early’s article below, he says that Americans will spend $22 billion on luxury bathrooms alone. Don’t miss his links to several other excellent articles on the topic of happiness. Thanks Mark, and thanks Steve.
Vanity of Vanities: The Source of Happiness
by Mark Earley, 8/24/2006
Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.
Tracy Ballard turns up the volume on her new wireless iPod. She basks in the rays streaming from her bathroom skylight and admires the iridescent glass tiles beneath her feet.
Only the flush of her husband’s morning trip to the bathroom could interrupt her enjoyment of this resort-like setting.
When Tracy and her husband, John, of Washington, D.C., decided that their bathroom needed a little upgrade, they didn’t stop at new sinks. No, they equipped their tile-covered getaway with a 9-by-4-foot shower, fully arrayed with five shower heads, four body sprays, instant steam, and portable speakers for their iPod.
Tracy and John are just one of many American couples who now deck out their bathrooms with every amenity—including wide-screen TVs with surround sound! A Washington Post article predicted that just this year, Americans will spend $22 billion on luxury bathrooms alone—that’s ten times what America will spend on AIDS research! This trend toward increasingly decadent powder rooms reflects a phenomenon author Gregg Easterbrook describes as the “progress paradox.” He explains that Americans are wealthier, healthier, and safer than they were fifty years ago.
But here’s the catch—the number of people who say they are “very unhappy” has risen 20 percent since the 1950s. And rates of depression are 10 times higher than they were fifty years ago.
What’s wrong with our generation? Why are we so unhappy when we have so much?
Clearly, $120,000 latrines are not the answer.
J. P. Moreland, in his new book, The Lost Virtue of Happiness, says that we are miserable because we have a distorted definition of happiness. We describe happiness as a feeling of pleasure achieved through the gratification of our physical and emotional desires. Underlying that definition is the assumption that our lives are our own and it’s up to us to maximize comfort and minimize pain.
According to Moreland, we’ve got it all wrong. The classical notion of happiness (or eudaimonia in Greek), was “a life well lived, a life of virtue and character, a life that manifests wisdom, kindness, and goodness”—not a life consumed with self-gratification.
“Real life does not come naturally,” Moreland explains. “It is counterintuitive. It is a skill we have to learn. That’s because the way to real life is not something we get, but something we give.”
The ancient Greek philosophers and our American forefathers understood this, but modern Americans seem to have forgotten it. We’ve forgotten that we obtain happiness by living out the paradox Christ lays before us in Matthew 16:25: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”
A feeling of happiness may be the result of a life well-lived, but it can never be our goal. True happiness abounds when we understand that our lives are not our own and when we practice the spiritual disciplines that lead us closer to Christ—the source of our true happiness.
Maybe, then, we won’t need to spend $22 billion to lace our lavatories with gold.
For Further Reading and Information
Today’s BreakPoint offer: The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse by Gregg Easterbrook.
Stephanie McCrummen, “Flush with Success, and Looking to Spend,” Washington Post, 6 July 2006, A01.
J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler, The Lost Virtue of Happiness (NavPress, 2006).
BreakPoint Commentary No. 040302, “Miserable in the Midst of Plenty: The Progress Paradox.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 040303, “Scaring Witless: How the Media Distorts Reality.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 040304, “An Inert Gray Blur: Depressed in the Midst of Plenty.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 050225, “Castles in the Air (and Backyard): Perfect Parenting.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 050719, “Becoming Our Own Gods: The Dennis Kozlowski Story.”
Charles Colson with Harold Fickett, The Good Life (Tyndale, 2005).
“Can Money Buy Happiness?” CBS News, 22 August 2006.
David Futrelle, “Can Money Buy Happiness?” Money, 18 July 2006.
Alison Roberts, “If You’re Happy and You Know It . . . ,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 20 August 2006.
David Yount, “Worldwide Happiness Poll: Danes, 1, Americans, 23,” Kitsap Sun, 20 August 2006.
Sophie Goodchild, “Happiness Lessons for All,” The Independent (London), 9 July 2006.