Why Are We So Unhappy?

The recent spate of suicides by the rich and famous is a symptom of our growing sense of gloom. We enjoy social, technological, and economic conditions that would have been considered utopian less than a century ago. Yet, unhappiness, and even depression, are at record levels. Why?

In his impressively researched book, The Progress Paradox, Gregg Easterbrook observes that by every measure of well-being, our generation is better off than any of our forbearers. We enjoy more leisure time with better health, less air pollution, higher levels of education, higher per-capita income, and greater personal and civil liberties than at any other time in history.

Even compared to the halcyon 1950s, our generation has it better in terms of real income, home and car ownership, not to mention morbidity, mortality, education, environmental quality, and the fair treatment of minorities. Whereas, in the past, these benefits were limited to the rich and privileged, today they are realized by a wide spectrum of society. For example, in 1960, 22 percent of Americans lived under the poverty line, compared to 12.7 percent in 2016.

All these material measures should add up to an increased sense of well-being. But they don’t. Instead, the incidence of depression has skyrocketed (up to one thousand times higher) since the Halcyon Decade.

Gloominess in an age of unprecedented progress is a paradox in need of an explanation.

A Trade Secret
In the ancient world of Hippocrates, mental states were thought to depend on the proper balance of four basic substances, or humours: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. The same notion prevails today with the emphasis on chemistry.

There is no doubt that some types of mental disorders have biochemical origins. The success of medication in treating certain depressions strongly suggests the importance of chemistry in mental health. But “treating” is a clue to a trade secret in psychotherapy. As University of Pennsylvania professor, Martin Seligman, admits, “Every single drug in the psychopharmacopia is palliative.”

Given the epidemic rate of melancholy, Dr. Seligman’s admission suggests that much of what ails us has a cause beyond bad chemistry and bad genes. While negative past experiences account for some of our gloom, ideas popularized over the last several decades lurk behind much of it.

Gregg Easterbrook observes, “In Western nations … people have become no happier, in the very period that thinkers and educators have proclaimed life meaningless…” This is an important observation. For there is nary a nook of culture left untouched by the nihilism that percolated out of coffee bistros of the last century.

Message of Meaninglessness
From the classroom to the art gallery, to Friends and Seinfeld, the nihilistic message is clear: We are alone in an indifferent universe, bereft of explanation or purpose, with nothing to give meaning to our existence but the sum-total of our personal experiences. And, for the throng of restless souls chasing after the “meaningful” experience, modern psychology is there to light the way.

With a lump of Freudian theory, a dash of Kinseyian research, and liberal amounts of Maslow’s hierarchy, pop therapy promises meaning and self-discovery through the satisfaction of felt needs, starting with the sensual. To be sure, the prospect of finding meaning through sensual experiences is exciting, even liberating, until the inflationary promises of no-fault hedonism go bust.

In his book, Psychology as Religion, psychology professor Paul Vitz explains that the pursuit of sensual fulfillment creates inflated expectations that cannot keep up with the demand of rising adaptation levels. The “ever-increasing craving for an ever-diminishing pleasure,” as C.S. Lewis phrases it, leads people into more and more extreme (and destructive) behaviors which, in the end, devour, rather than fulfill, them.

Those who graduate from sensual fulfillment to “self-actualization,” pop psychology’s summa bonum of life, fare no better.

Dr. Vitz notes that popular selfist theories have “led to large-scale disappointment.” Not only has the “search for self” often resulted in divorce and broken relationships, but those life experiences brought job frustrations, financial problems, and health challenges that have created a yawning gap between expectation and reality. Disappointment and disillusionment in the crucible of life has been the theme of some of the most critically acclaimed movies in recent decades.

Take American Beauty (1999), The Hours (2002), and Revolutionary Road (2008), which depict a world devoid of ultimate meaning, populated by characters whose highest aspiration is to be true to self (whatever that means) through unfettered self-expression. Casualties accumulated along the way—be they infidelity, divorce, or even suicide—are neither wrong nor tragic but, rather, the consequences of choices made by the courageous hero, or heroine, to avoid the real tragedy: the “counterfeit” life.

It is an old storyline that goes back to a man who anguished over the meaning of human existence.

Transcendent Signposts
Three thousand years ago, Solomon began a journey of self-discovery with an endless stream of variegated experiences. In an effort to tease out the mystery of meaning, Solomon pursued wisdom, pleasure, partying, possessions, grand projects, and even folly. In all those endeavors, Solomon accomplished more, acquired more and enjoyed more than any person before or since; and yet he despaired over the meaninglessness of it all.

Like Solomon, there are many people who feel bad amid prosperity. For them, life is about bearing down, trying harder, and braving the outfall as best they can. In ignorance, or avoidance, they pass, without notice, the transcendental signposts along their existential journey. They are like the man who tries to run from his own shadow, only to keep tripping over road hazards and coming to dead ends.

Carl Jung understood the importance of those signposts. In Modern Man in Search of a Soul, he wrote, “Among all my patients in the second half of life… [it] is safe to say that every one of them feel ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given to their followers and not one of them has really been healed who did not regain his religious outlook.”

Jung did not espouse any orthodox religion, but he was among those who recognized the spiritual dimension of our pathology—like the late clinical psychiatrist, Karl Menninger.

Menninger once said that if he could convince his institutionalized patients that their sins were forgiven, 75 percent would walk out of the ward the next day. The irrepressible sense that we stand guilty before Someone, somehow, is symptomatic of a condition that, left unresolved, sooner or later externalizes in unhealthy behaviors or internalizes in mental maladies.

As it so happens, Christianity is the only belief system, religious or otherwise, that promises resolution with the assurance that resolution has been attained. (“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins,” 1 John 1:9.) What a challenging thought to consider the potential of the Gospel for transforming mental health care and emptying psychiatric sanatoria!

Beyond Self
Solomon moved from darkness to light by coming to grips with the metaphysical questions of existence, questions that, for all time, have pointed men to God and his good news:

  • What is our origin and nature? “God made mankind upright…”
  • Why is there evil? “…but men have gone in search of schemes.” ( Eccl. 7:29)
  • What is our purpose? “Fear God and keep his commands, for this is the whole duty of man.” (Eccl. 8:12)
  • What will become of us? “For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil.” (Eccl. 12:13)

Solomon learned, contrary to the psychobabble of pop therapists, that life’s meaning is not in discovering self, but in submission to Other. The school of life taught Solomon that sensual fulfillment, material accomplishments, and “actualizing” experiences can be sources of temporal satisfaction and enjoyment, but they are not sources of meaning and purpose. That source is God.

As a creation, man has intrinsic worth whose life is imbued with lasting significance discoverable through the revealed Word of the Creator. A millennium later, the apostle Paul summed up the lesson to a group of Athenian philosophers: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Regis Nicoll

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Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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