Happiness, Vanity and Affluence

August 24, 2006

happiness.jpgI 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.



Evangelical Christian Humanist, an Oxymoron?

August 20, 2006


Perhaps this is what a humanist looked like in 1480, at least Bellini thought so. The slogan that captured the thinking of the Renaissance was “Man is the measure of all things.”  But I think they were more open to matters of faith than we are today.  Modern thought has seemed to crystalize around secular humanism which is polarized against anything that smacks of religious dogma.  I think this is unnecessary.  If “humanists” are people who are unreservedly committed to human life at its fullest, and people deeply pained by human life at its worst, then Evangelical Christians should be at the forefront of what we call humanism. In my wrestling with the gap between the word and the concept, I got curious about what made “humanism” such a negative word in the Christian circles I associate with. So I went to the declaration of humanist principles from “The Amsterdam Declaration 2002” to see where I stood (links are to Wikipedia definitions):

  • Humanism is ethical. Amen. I endorse a strong sense of right and wrong.
  • Humanism is rational. As far as it goes, reason is “A” source of knowledge, but not “THE” source. To exclude the senses and experience and biblical revelation is in my mind to be narrow and much too limited. To me, an epistemology that is not revelatory is severely limited.
  • Humanism supports democracy and human rights. Amen again. I think nothing supports human rights more than Christ’s teaching on the poor and the weak. Paul stood up for his rights as a Roman citizen when he was being flogged illegally (Acts 22:25-29)
  • Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion . Oops. Here it is. The Amsterdam Declaration explicitly states that Humanism rejects dogma and therefore, rejects biblical revelation. To me, to reject something just because it doesn’t make sense to the rational mind is arrogant. As a Christian, I not only believe many things I cannot “understand” but devote my life to the Person of God who revealed them in his Written Word. I am amused at how dogmatic the secular humanists are in rejecting dogma. So I am not a Secular humanist.
  • Humanism is a lifestance aiming at the maximum possible fulfillment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living. As far is this goes, I agree. But I would go further to center my focus of ultimate importance on cultivating my personal relationship with God. Ethical and creative living is then the byproduct of my core relationship. If I “abide in Him, I bear much fruit.”

Almost six out of seven principles are in agreement! In this context, Glenn Stanton’s article, The Conservative Humanist,” in Christianity Today does not seem so “far out.” Perhaps we do need to broaden our use of the word “humanist” rather than letting secular humanism reign as the default meaning. Here is Stanton’s complete article. Don’t miss the example of Anita in the last four paragraphs.

The Conservative Humanist

(Those who are pro-life and pro-family should have no problem being pro-human.)
by Glenn T. Stanton.

I have been a lifelong enlistee in the curious thing called the culture war. Both my convictions and my life’s work have planted me squarely in the so-called Religious Right. But only recently have I begun to think of myself as a humanist.

My teen years spanned the turbulent and uncertain 1970s. It was during those years Read the rest of this entry »

Barna Report Shows How Americans Perceive Themselves

August 14, 2006

barna.jpgGeorge Barna’s most recent report confirms my subjective sense that many people see themselves as more virtuous and more “together” than they actually are. In the battle of words over “self-esteem” the Bible thumpers say we don’t need more of it while the other side says the lack of it is the basis of all our problems. I think it’s not a matter of more or less, but more accurate. Our dignity and worth, of course, is rooted in God our Creator and Sustainer, but it is also experienced and developed in our treatment of others and affirmed by the feedback we get from others. Paulselfesteem.jpg admonishes his readers in Romans 12:3 “not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.” All this precedes his description of the giftedness of each believer and his/her role in the body of Christ. This, in turn, implies that we ought to recognize and grow in our giftedness while we humbly and graciously affirm the importance of everyone else’s uniqueness and their contributions to the complex interconnections of individuals. May my view of myself be based in sound judgment. Here’s Barna’s summary followed by his detailed report:

Our analysis of how Americans perceive themselves in relation to 33 different descriptions reveals that adults generally see themselves as good people, spiritually stable, and living a good and honorable life. Yet, despite the spiritual focus people claim, the study found that people’s lifestyles, attitudes and self-perceptions are more likely to be affected by their life-stage and ethnic culture than by their faith commitments.

To get the details, click on the line below

Read the rest of this entry »

Why Do I Verbally Put Down My Spouse?

August 14, 2006

verbal-abuse-to-spouse.jpgScott Haltzman, MD, author of The Secrets of Happily Married Men: Eight Ways to Win Your Wife’s Heart Forever has started writing a column for a new magazine, “Hitched.” It’s online now and coming out in real paper and ink sometime in the future. He nailed me! I could add personal examples of my own unkind words to support each of his four points. (1) Unrealistic expectations, (2) Unwillingness to give of myself, (3) Lack of compassion, and (4) Blaming her for things that go wrong. Here’s the whole article:

Why Do I Verbally Put Down My Spouse?
Frustration often leads to harsh words and later regret. Understanding why helps to keep things positive.

Anytime I get angry towards my wife, I find myself cutting her down verbally. Can you help me put a stop to it?
When a man and woman exchange rings on the altar, they do so with the hopes of a marriage filled with joy and satisfaction. As they turn and walk through the aisle, they anticipate a storybook ending of a life filled with only good things. And for a while, that’s the way things are…then the words fly.

In all relationships, we seek happiness. We often look to our partner as the main conduit to our piece of mind. We figure that if our wife or husband were wise enough, strong enough and resourceful enough, they’d figure out what we need and meet them without hesitation. After all, he or she did that when we were dating, right?

Feeling angry in your marriage is a sure sign that your needs aren’t being met. You assume that your desires are reasonable and frankly, any reasonable person should be Read the rest of this entry »

Two Types of Forgiveness

August 13, 2006

eye.jpgThe name Ev Worthington immediately triggers “Christian forgiveness” in my mind. No one has written more on the subject than him as far as I know. His recent article in the Journal of Psychology and Theology has as many helpful nuggets in his introduction and review as in his new ideas set forth. One of those insights answers the question I posed to him several years ago (and he graciously answered in an e-mail): “If I forgave someone yesterday for some offense, how to I deal with the negative emotions that gurgle to the surface today? Does it mean I didn’t really forgive them? How long does forgiveness take?” Dr. Worthington has identified two types of experiences of individual forgiveness: decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness.

Decisional forgiveness is a judicial statement that closes the books on the case. It says, “Case Closed.” It means I have made a willful decision to no longer seek revenge non to extract anything from the offender (like an apology or remuneration). Biblical support of this is seen in Matthew 6:12-15.

Emotional forgiveness is a process rather than a point-in-time decision. It is a process of “replacing negative unforgiving emotions with positive other-oriented emotions like empathy, sympathy, compassion and love.” While this can take a long time, Worthington says that it can result in “a net removal of all negative unforgiving emotions.”

I think the life of Desmond Tutu exemplifies much of this attitude of complete forgiveness. Five years ago, he said,

Forgiveness, is not opposed to justice, especially if it is not punitive justice, but restorative justice, justice that does not seek primarily to punish the perpetrator, to hit out, but looks to heal a breach, to restore a social equilibrium that the atrocity or misdeed has disturbed. Ultimately there is no future without forgiveness. ~ Desmond Tutu: 9/11/2001 (click on the eye above for full text)

News, Tools, & a Counseling Resource

August 13, 2006

Brian Craig’s new website is worthy of a link.  He has included a tab for counseling-related news and insights into marriage which helps you keep up with what’s going on in the counseling world.  Brian has a heart for working with pastors to help meet the needs of people in the Christian community.  He is also building practical tools.  For example, if you need help setting up a home budget, check out Brian’s downloadable form.  One click and you have all the necessary categories organized on an Excel spreadsheet ready for your numbers. 


Men, Commitment and Marriage

August 11, 2006

committment.jpgSmart Marriages provides lots of good links and articles on marrige. For example, when you get to the site, click on men and commitment for some good insights on commitment. In this article, Karen Peterson talks about a presentation by Scott Stanley, co-author of Fighting for Your Marriage, and highlights how many researchers agree, “men are the foot-draggers” when it comes to commitment. But there are some differences about why that might be the case. For example, are men ok with their commitment to a woman, but avoid commitment to the institution of marriage? What’s the role of cohabitation in this dilemma? I think the lack of commitment on the part of men is a good example of how well-entrenched fear blocks out love (rather than “pefect love casts out fear”) and this love can be the love of God or the love of/for a woman.