Here’s something almost everybody is interested in – personal happiness. How do you find happiness? How do you hang onto it once you’ve found it? What really can make us happy?
Here’s something almost everybody is interested in – personal happiness. I don’t know too many people who would claim they don’t care about that. But the question is, how do you find happiness? How do you hang onto it once you’ve found it? What really can make us happy? Money? Friendship? Fun? Marriage? Religion? To find out more, I recently spoke with Dr. David Myers, a distinguished professor of Psychology from Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Dr. Myers has written a number of books in the field of social psychology, and much of his recent research has focused on the question of how happy people in our society are and what makes them that way.
INTERVIEW WITH DAVID MYERS
David Bast: Happiness—it’s such an important subject for everyone, and I wonder as a point to begin how you would define it. What is happiness anyway?
David Myers: It’s an enduring sense of positive well-being. We’re not talking about temporary ups and downs in the daily moods but a deeper sense that things are well. In point of fact, however, in the research studies, it’s whatever people mean when they describe their lives as very happy, as marked by joy or a deep sense of life satisfaction, as we call it.
David Bast: I was taken by that as I read some of the materials that you’ve written on this subject. You said, rather than worrying about a theoretical definition, if you feel happy you are happy. That’s maybe the best benchmark.
David Myers: Right, the researchers call this “subjective well-being” so if you think you’re happy we’re going to consider you happy. It turns out that if you think you’re happy, the people that know you best will probably agree with you. If you think you’re a deeply unhappy person, your roommates, your spouses, your family members will probably concur in that assessment.
David Bast: So let’s talk a little bit about our culture and I’m speaking, of course, as an American. But maybe more broadly this applies to the west, the industrialized nations. Are people generally happy?
David Myers: In industrialized western nations, about three in ten people say they’re very happy. Only one in ten people say they’re not very happy. The remaining six in ten or so say they’re pretty happy, and about eight in ten people say they’re at least fairly satisfied with life as a whole. So despite all the books written about how miserable life is – books, by the way, mostly written by mental health workers who spend their days counseling deeply unhappy people – most people, the depressed excepted, report at least a fairly high level of well-being.
David Bast: But yet there are troubling indications as well, aren’t there? Social psychology shows by research that there are increased trouble signs.
David Myers: Yes, since 1960 up through the early 1990s we saw a decline in first the percentage of people who were saying they’re very happy (that dropped here in the United States from about 35 down to about 29 percent. It’s now back up to about 32 percent.) We’ve seen a marked increase in rates of depression, and depression is striking people at younger and younger ages. We’ve seen a tripling of the teen suicide rate, and we’ve seen various indications of the corrosion of the social fabric, not just a doubling of the divorce rate but mushrooming rates of juvenile violence until recently again, teen suicide, teen violence, teen pregnancy, have all been subsiding here in the west in the last half dozen years but still they’re markedly higher than they were back in 1960. Now I call this the American paradox. It’s actually the name of a book I have recently, referring to the paradoxical state of affairs with this post-1960 era being on the one hand the best of times marked by a doubling in real personal incomes, improved human rights, and yet on the other hand, increasing rates of depression and kind of social collapse.
David Bast: So even though there’s been a little bit of improvement in some of these troubling statistics in just the last couple of years, overall there’s been a very serious decline.
David Myers: That’s right.
David Bast: And so we’re seeing lots more illegitimacy, lots more divorce, teen suicide and the rest.
David Myers: Sure, sure. In 1960 five percent of babies born in the United States were born to unmarried parents as were one third last year – six times as many, proportionately! And that statistic basically describes other countries as well. If you look at Canada, the United Kingdom, basically everywhere. It’s true everywhere here in the United States too.
David Bast: And we also know from research, don’t we, that the best chance for happiness a child has is to have an intact family.
David Myers: Absolutely. And I don’t care whether you are Focus on the Family or Planned Parenthood, whether you’re on the right or the left, you are persuaded by the evidence, if you’ve looked at it, that two adults enduringly committed to each other and to the well-being of their children is the best environment for nurturing children who thrive. And a committed, enduring, supportive marriage is also conducive to the happiness of adults. In the United States, for example, over the last quarter century, we have random samples of more than 35,000 adults, 40 percent of whom say they’re very happy if married, only 23% of whom say they’re very happy if unmarried.
David Bast: So strong marriage, strong families are definitely, could we say, the number one key to personal happiness?
David Myers: Yes, I actually would say. I mean that’s the number one key, both because close, supportive, intimate connections nurture human happiness and health. Also because, however, happy people are more likely to marry and stay married than are depressed, irritable people.
David Bast: Yes, as I read that, I thought it could be that people are happy because they’re married but happy people tend to get married.
David Myers: The causal traffic runs both ways.
David Bast: Let’s talk about a couple of other factors that you mentioned in your writing. You talked about three f’s: funds, friends or family, and faith. Or, in other words, financial well-being (money), relationships, and religion or personal faith. Those are all key indicators to happiness.
David Myers: They are three things that might be correlated. Now as it actually turns out, the funds aren’t much connected to human happiness. Very high income people, even people who’ve been named as one of the 100 richest Americans, even people who’ve won a state lottery or the pool in Britain report after adapting to this extraordinary wealth pretty much the same level of happiness on average as you’d get in any normal middle-class person. Moreover, as incomes have multiplied over the last half-century, happiness has not increased.
David Bast: A couple of things about that really jumped out at me. One was that you reprinted a chart and people who lived in Poland were actually on the average happier than people in Japan even though the income, as I figured it, was about ten times greater in Japan than in Poland.
David Myers: Yes. Or the Irish, for example, even though they’re relatively low on the scale of European incomes, have year after year reported more satisfaction and contentment with their lives than have the much more affluent but more dour West Germans.
David Bast: And, of course, speaking of ourselves, you just mentioned that really incredible statistic: our income has doubled, more than doubled in the last 40 years, and yet the number of people who say they are very happy has gone down.
David Myers: And the number of depressed people has gone up.
David Bast: Is it a factor maybe that it’s comparison that makes us less satisfied or less happy? I mean if we’re all in the same boat, we can all be reasonably happy but when we look at somebody who has more, then . . . .
David Myers: And we compare upward, and then we see ourselves as relatively deprived and we do tend to look upward at those yet ahead of us when we make these comparisons. That is true, also it is true that we tend always to be adapting to whatever our circumstance is, and thus if our income doubles, if we get a second car, and many more of us have second cars today than was the case a half-century ago, if we eat out more often, and indeed we are eating out two and a half times as often as we were forty years ago, pretty soon we just adapt to this and so the new toys don’t bring the pleasure in a sustained basis as when we first get them.
David Bast: Yes, another way of saying it is: The pleasure wears off from all the things we accumulate.
David Myers: We adapt to change.
David Bast: And even the experiences that we buy for ourselves.
David Myers: Yes
David Bast: A little bit more on relationships. Let’s just look at that factor. We’ve already talked about how families and marriage are significant.
David Myers: It’s not just marriage that’s associated with happiness. It’s other close relationships too. Our listeners might ask themselves, “Do you have any soul-mate friends? I mean I know you know a lot of people, but are there people that you feel intimately close to, folks that you’d freely call up today if some good or bad news entered your life, and who’d do the same with you? Folks who can name several such people are markedly likelier to say that they’re very happy than people who have trouble naming such a person.
David Bast: What would you say to someone who would respond, “Well, I’d love to have someone like that but I haven’t been able to find that person,” or “I don’t know where to go for such a relationship.”
David Myers: Well, I wouldn’t want to be prescriptive for any individual, but I would say that I think maybe as a culture and as individuals, we need to invest ourselves more in close relationships. We’re investing ourselves a lot in our careers and making more money and so forth because this is a very materialistic age, but in point of fact, that really doesn’t matter as much for human well-being as close, supportive, intimate connections with other people. We have what social psychologists these days are calling a deep need to belong.
David Bast: And there are many ways of satisfying that need, not least of them belonging to a community of faith.
David Myers: Indeed, there are some 300,000 faith communities here in the United States alone, not to mention the other countries where our words are being heard right now, each of which is for its active members a social support system. People who were there for one another when crunch time comes in their lives, all of us who are in faith communities sometimes shake our heads at things we wish were different about our faith community but let something bad happen, let there be the death of a child, let there be a serious illness, and we get “love bombed.” We feel social support.
David Bast: Let’s talk about the third “f” then, faith, or religious commitment. There are statistics, aren’t there, that indicate that people who have such faith or have a commitment like that, are in fact happier and healthier even?
David Myers: Yes, it’s very interesting, recent research findings on this. They’re quite powerful and in a way quite surprising. For example, here in the United States over the last 35 years surveys again with more than 35,000 randomly sampled Americans reveal that 27 percent of those who never attend church of synagogue report being very happy as do 47 percent of those who attend more than weekly.
David Bast: So almost double for people who are very active in their church or synagogue.
David Myers: Yes, George Gallup has also found that people who were at the low end of spiritual commitment, as he assesses it with seven different questions, are half as likely to say they are very happy as people who are at the high end of spiritual commitment, who believe in God, whose faith is very important to them, who pray daily, and so forth.
David Bast: So you could almost say that believing is a prescription to a better life here and now, let alone what happens in the future.
David Myers: And that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. The question of truth is what really should matter for us, not what makes us feel good. But if faith does entail, let’s think about it, a social support within faith communities (and Judaism and Christianity are communal religions; they are not solo New Age spirituality) if it entails meaning and purpose, if it entails a sense of grace, a feeling ultimately accepted by what you take to be the most profoundly important being in the universe.
David Bast: And a mechanism for dealing with failure and sin for one’s own shortcomings. The whole idea of confessing and accepting and receiving forgiveness.
David Myers: And a sense of hope, that come what may, in the end, the very end, “all should be well, and all should be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” If faith entails these things, social support, meaning, grace, a focus beyond self, a way to cope with failure, hope, maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that people of faith do exhibit elevated levels of happiness. And as you mention, even somewhat longer life.
David Bast: Yes, but as you say, as you rightly point out, none of this matters as much if it’s not true. Truth is crucial to this. If we’re just kind of believing in a pipe dream, then, as Paul said, “we’re of all people most to be pitied.”
David Myers: Yes, but it is interesting that Sigmund Freud said that religion is a sickness, it’s an obsessional neurosis (David Bast: Your most famous colleague, I might say) that leads people to live sexually repressed, uptight, and therefore unhappy lives. Well, we now have a mountain of evidence that Freud was absolutely wrong.
David Bast: So he may also have been wrong on the matter of it’s being an illusion.
David Myers: Yes, he may have been. He was wrong about many things as it turns out, according to the perspective of contemporary psychological science.
David Bast: It’s a fascinating subject and I’m very grateful to Dr. Myers for sharing his time and expertise with us. Incidentally, if you would like to explore this subject a little more you can visit Dr. Myer’s website at
A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE
So what is it about money that makes it a poor means of securing our personal happiness? And just how should Christians feel about money? After all, the Bible does have a lot to say on that subject – much of it negative. Think of the prophet Amos and his strident denunciation of the wealthy, luxury-loving citizens of Israel in his day: “You cows of Bashan,” he called them. Or Paul’s warning that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Jesus seemed especially hard on the wealthy. Maybe you can recall the story of the Rich Young Ruler – he’s the fellow Jesus told to go and sell all that he had and give it to the poor, and then come and follow him. And when the man refused, Jesus commented, “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom. It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved!” That doesn’t sound too promising.
On the other hand, there are plenty of examples in the Bible of very wealthy and powerful people who were obviously blessed and accepted by God. There were the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Jacob’s son Joseph, the Prime Minister of ancient Egypt; King David and his son Solomon, who was not only the wisest but the richest person of his time. And while the apostle Paul could write of the early church that not many of its members were from the upper class (1 Corinthians 1:26), the New Testament does mention several people of means who were also followers of Jesus Christ.
So how about money? Is it a sin to be rich? Is it wrong to want to have more of it? Is it sub-Christian to make financial security one of your goals in life? I don’t think so. I don’t think we could say that. But it is important to recognize the problems money can cause when it comes to finding happiness. First of all I think we should acknowledge that not having money isn’t the key to happiness either. Poverty is no fun. It’s a bad thing when people don’t have enough to live decently or comfortably, and as Christians we should devote our efforts to attacking the social evil that is poverty. While it’s possible to be happy despite being poor, we shouldn’t conclude that anyone will be happy because they are poor.
But having money can lead to problems as well. Acquiring wealth often triggers both greed and envy in us. Greed is impossible to satisfy. It creates an itch that no amount of scratching can ever meet. It sets us off running a race that we can never win because the race has no finish line. And envy leads to comparison and resentment, both of which are sure-fire happiness killers. When we think about our own circumstances we tend to look at those who are above us, who have more than we do, and then we become angry, critical, discontented. But most of us would never imagine either that we are the cause of those same feelings in others who have less than we do, or that the people we’re so busy envying are just as unhappy themselves when they look at those who are above them!
Another problem with money and happiness is that they don’t last. Neither one does, neither our wealth nor the kinds of pleasures and happiness money can buy. They just don’t last. Jesus once told a parable about a man who was completely obsessed with his possessions. One night God told him his time was up. “You fool, this very night your soul is required of you. Then whose will all these things be?” (Luke 12:20). We are creatures made by God for eternity. We need to find something just a little bit more permanent than money to ground our happiness in.
So what might that be? I’ll never forget a comment made by my brother Bob shortly before his death. He was summing up a lesson he had learned as a result of his struggle with terminal cancer. It was this: the most important thing in life, the only thing that matters in the end, is relationships. Think about that for just a minute, and you’ll see how true that is. Relationships are everything. Your relationship with husband or wife, with parents or child, with friends, most of all, with God. What can compete with that? What can take its place? You could be as rich as Bill Gates, but what good is it if you don’t have anyone to share your life with? And what does any accomplishment, any possession matter in comparison with knowing God, with loving and being loved by our Creator, by the Lord who is both our Savior and our Friend? That’s why faith is so crucial to our ultimate happiness. As Jesus himself said so pointedly: “What will a person give in exchange for their soul?” What does it profit you to gain the whole world if you lose your soul?
I hope it doesn’t take death to teach you and me the lesson that true happiness does not come from accumulating more – more money, more stuff, more experiences, more conquests. It comes from experiencing a loving relationship with God and with other people, relationships that in Christ last forever.