I cannot think of a person who is not glad we’re turning the page on 2020 and moving into a New Year, if not for themselves, for others. The loss, depression and demoralization experienced by tens of millions of Americans in 2020 has crippled their lives, families and our society. You know the statistics.
So, the big question is: Will a new year bring us brighter times? Will you and yours be happier in 2021? The answer is definitely yes, at least you can be. However, it genuinely doesn’t take a new year to find it, including in times we’ve suffered great hardships. Let me explain.
America definitely needs a reset. Most of us can use a new beginning in a big way. The truth is, most people are waiting for the pandemic to subside so that their lives can get back to normal. But what is “normal,” and were most of us really happy there?
Studies show that since 1972 to the present, throughout roughly nine presidents, salaries have increased across the fields of employment. House ownership and living space have increased. Material goods in our homes have increased. Technological speed, commerce and social connections via the internet have radically increased. And for those who don’t have much of the above, even government growth and entitlements have increased.
Yet, throughout the past five decades, happiness has decreased, according to Arthur C. Brooks, in his insightful column, “Are We Trading Our Happiness for Modern Comforts?” in The Atlantic (Oct. 22, 2020).
Brooks, a professor of the practice of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and a professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School, explained, “But amid these advances in quality of life across the income scale, average happiness is decreasing in the U.S. The General Social Survey, which has been measuring social trends among Americans every one or two years since 1972, shows a long-term, gradual decline in happiness – and rise in unhappiness – from 1988 to the present.”
Dr. Brooks further explained:
Empty consumerism and soulless government are the traditional two explanations for our modern alienation. These days, there is a brand-new one: tech. The tech revolution promised us our heart’s desires: everything you want to know at the click of a mouse; the ability to become famous to strangers; anything you want to buy, delivered to your door in days without you having to leave home.
But our happiness has not increased as a result – on the contrary. Mounting evidence shows that media and technology use predict deleterious psychological and physiological outcomes, especially among young people. This is particularly true in the case of social-media use. The psychologist Jean M. Twenge has shown that social media increases depression, especially among girls and young women.
Brooks words remind me of a great book I just finished that was written nearly 30 years ago. It is called “Christianity for Modern Pagans” by Peter Kreeft. It is a reflection on selected pensees by Blaise Pascal, the brilliant 17th century scientist, philosopher and inventor. Pascal’s main point is that humans create and are consumed with (some say, addicted to) “diversions” in order to experience lasting happiness, all the while running from their real selves and the true path of happiness. What amazes me is that Pascal wrote these things centuries before TV, Super Bowls, Ebay, Netflix, social media and internet commerce.
Kreeft summarized the conclusion: “A society or individual with the most amusements and diversions is not the happiest, but the most unhappy. Therefore, our society is the unhappiest. All the social indicators bear out this conclusion: depression, divorce, suicide, anxiety, drugs, violence [workaholism, chaotic busyness?] – you name it. The point is simple, we never want to divert ourselves from happiness, only from unhappiness” (p. 169).
Or in the words of Dr. Brooks: “We don’t get happier as our society gets richer, because we chase the wrong things.” Our “diversions,” as Pascal wrote, don’t stop inner conflicts but only temporarily cover them up. As important as even a vaccine might be to the world, not even the obliteration of every cell of the coronavirus next year can make us truly happy.
Winning the culture war for true happiness might be America’s greatest battle, and it’s waging right now at full tilt within our hearts and minds. Dare I say, 2020 hasn’t all been in vain. As tough and even tragic as it’s been for so many, it’s stripped us of our “diversions” and forced us to face the real us. And as painful as that might be, like fall leaves blown away in the wind, it’s also revealed the path to victory and happiness.
Dr. Brooks offers three steps of advice to help get us back to the roots of true happiness, wisdom that can definitely help us in 2021, especially as we pursue a more “normal life” in the aftermath of the very abnormal 2020. It’s worth your very slow read, and maybe even a second read:
- “Don’t Buy That Thing
“Marketers know that if they can grab hold of your brain chemistry – get you in a state of “hedonic consumption” in which your decisions are driven by pleasure more than utility – they can probably sell you something, whether you “need” it or not. But we can resist advertising’s pull on our emotions. Next time you are presented with the claim that this or that product will make you happy, channel your inner monk, and say five times, out loud: “This will not bring me satisfaction.” Then imagine yourself in six months looking back on this decision, pleased that you made it correctly.
- “Don’t put your faith in princes (or politicians)
“If I complain that government is soulless or that a politician is making me unhappy – which I personally have done many times – I am saying that I think government should have a soul or that politicians can and should bring me happiness. This is naive at best.
“Some of history’s greatest tyrants have promised that a government or political leader could bring joy to life. In 1949, the Soviet government promoted the slogan ‘Beloved Stalin is the people’s happiness.’ Few leaders have delivered more misery and death than Stalin – but looking at this slogan makes me think twice about my own expectations of governments and politicians. [Don’t many today put their same hope in a president?]
- “Don’t trade love for anything
“I have referenced in this column before a famous study that followed hundreds of men who graduated from Harvard from 1939 to 1944 throughout their lives, into their 90s. The researchers wanted to know who flourished, who didn’t, and the decisions they had made that contributed to that well-being. The lead scholar on the study for many years was the Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, who summarized the results in his book Triumphs of Experience. Here is his summary, in its entirety: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’
“The current director of the study, the psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, filled in the details. He told me in a recent interview that the subjects who reported having the happiest lives were those with strong family ties, close friendships, and rich romantic lives. The subjects who were most depressed and lonely late in life – not to mention more likely to be suffering from dementia, alcoholism, or other health problems – were the ones who had neglected their close relationships.
“What this means is that anything that substitutes for close human relationships in your life is a bad trade. The study I mentioned above about uses of money makes this point. But the point goes much deeper. You will sacrifice happiness if you crowd out relationships with work, drugs, politics, or social media.
“The world encourages us to love things and use people. But that’s backwards. Put this on your fridge and try to live by it: Love people; use things.”
And if love and romance are our path to true happiness, they find no greater pinnacle and purpose than in our sacred romance: our relationship with God. And the man who has studied and documented that better than anyone else in my opinion is my friend and prolific author Randy Alcorn, in his book, “Happiness.” If there is one book you read in 2021, this is the one, and very affordable at still holiday discount prices (now two-thirds off at only $8 from his website!).
The fact is, you’ve had the key to happiness all along. It was with you even during the hard times of 2020. The good news about that is that we don’t have to wait for a new year, a new day or a new anything to start experiencing happiness.
It’s why Randy Alcorn also wrote in his Introduction to “Happiness”: “Anyone who waits for happiness will never be happy.”
My wife, Gena, and I wish you and yours happiness today, in the New Year and always!
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