Culture wars span the calendar year from Roe v. Wade anniversaries in January to Christmas culture wars in December. But through them all there is an underlying culture war working covertly behind the scenes, and its head arises particularly in this second week of February every year.
Regardless how you feel about Valentine’s Day, there is a war on love and happiness that has been unleashed for a long time across our country from college campuses to social media, and it’s actually robbing Americans – particularly young ones – of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Let me explain.
Something I’m greatly concerned about in our country, especially for the younger generations, is the way that most misunderstand the definition of – and how to obtain – true happiness and love. If we’re honest, the pursuit of both motivates nearly everything we do.
In 2017, Yale University offered its most popular class ever: “PSYCH 157: Psychology and the Good Life. ” Nearly one-fourth of all Yale undergraduates registered for it.
Dr. Laurie Santos, the psychology professor who teaches the course, said she “tries to teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life,” the New York Times reported.
No surprise why the university started offering the course. A 2013 report by the Yale College Council discovered that “more than half of undergraduates sought mental health care from the university” while enrolled. More than half? (So much for an Ivy League education quenching a soul’s desire for meaning and purpose.)
In 2017, the New York Times Magazine ran an article titled, “Why are More American Teenagers than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety?” It cited the annual survey of students by the American College Health Association, which discovered a significant jump of 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in life. A huge reason for the increase seems to be heightened concerns from pursuing things that really don’t satisfy inner human needs.
A 2015 American Freshman Survey asked thousands more of incoming students in colleges and universities across America about their goals and aspirations. The highest proportion (81.9 percent) checked “becoming very well off financially” as an “essential” or “very important” life objective.
However, Dr. Santos said that the things undergraduates most associate with achieving happiness – a high grade, a prestigious internship, a good-paying job, more money and material goods – do not increase happiness at all.
Dr. Santos explained: “Scientists didn’t realize this in the same way 10 or so years ago. Our intuitions about what will make us happy, like winning the lottery and getting a good grade, are totally wrong.”
So, why don’t they bring lasting happiness?
As Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor explained, our brains tend to miss-predict what will actually bring us happiness. We assume that if we achieve certain things in our life, we will find happiness.
- “I’ll be happy if I get admitted into the right school.”
- “I’ll be happy if I find the right partner.”
- “I’ll be happy if I make vice president.”
- “I’ll be happy if I have my dream house.”
Dr. Achor observed “this ‘if-then’ perspective cannot be supported by science, because each time our brain experiences a ‘success,’ it moves the goalposts of what success looks like. If you got good grades, you have to get better grades. If you have a good job, you now have to get a better job. If you hit your sales target, now you have to raise your sales target. If you buy a home, now you want to have a larger home.”
That’s true even for the alleged happiness source of increased wealth. Researcher Jonathan Haidt observed: “Wealth itself has only a small direct effect on happiness because it so effectively speeds up the hedonic treadmill. … As the level of wealth has doubled or tripled in the last fifty years in many industrialized nations, the levels of happiness and satisfaction with life that people report have not changed, and depression has actually become more common.”
Hedonic wellbeing is based on the notion that increased pleasure and decreased pain leads to happiness. According to the theory of the Hedonic treadmill, for example, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. The Hedonic Treadmill states that regardless of what happens to someone, their level of happiness will return to their baseline after the event(s) – high or low.
Speaking of money and its relation to pleasure and happiness, Yahoo Finance reported this week that social media is making Valentine’s Day super expensive for Millennials, as the pressure is on to post something about true love. It reported that consumers ages 23 to 29 expect to spend an average of $266 on Valentine’s Day gifts, dining and more, according to Bankrate.com. Dinner for two, chocolates and the works adds up for many to more than $600.
Kelly Anne Smith, a personal finance reporter at Bankrate.com, speaking of Millennials, said, “They are the generation most likely to spend the most. It makes a lot of sense: That generation is tapped into social media, which influences consumer spending.” Not to mention that previous generations have handed down to them the values that more money and stuff equates to more happiness.
But as far as romantic relationships, can love and happiness be bought? You already know the answer to that. Money often buys little more than fluctuating and fleeting relational highs, which is why romantic treadmills often need to increase in intensity and quantity to satisfy.
The problem with Millennials’ pressure to increase spending and to post love triumphs on social media brings them back full circle to feeling overwhelming anxiety and inadequate attempts to step off the hedonic treadmill.
Randy Alcorn, the author of “Happiness,” was right: “Anyone who waits for happiness will never be happy.”
Charles Spurgeon gave the solution: “It’s not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes happiness.”
The truth is, all good things (including romance in relationships) come down from God, but those good things were never intended to fill up our hearts or bring ultimate satisfaction.
I think America’s founders knew that. That’s why they connected a Creator with our happiness in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It is not coincidental that Thomas Jefferson’s original rough draft of the Declaration, which is on exhibit in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., began with the words: “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable. …” Sacred truths? Yes!
Scholars believe one possible source for Jefferson’s thought and phrase comes from the “Commentaries on the Laws of England“published by Sir William Blackstone from 1765 to 1769, which are often cited in the laws of the United States.
Blackstone argued that God “has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter.”
That is why, in my New York Times bestseller “Black Belt Patriotism,” my closing chapter is on “Reawakening the American Dream,” or helping people to really understand how America’s founders intended us to enjoy life, liberty and happiness.
The one constant in life is also the source of all things in the Declaration: the Creator. Our founders trusted not in the supply but the Supplier to acquire life, liberty and happiness, and encouraged us to do the same.
There’s a verse in the Bible that summarizes it for me: “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.”
When you’ve got God, you’ve got the gold – and all you need to achieve and experience true love, happiness and the American Dream.
(For more on this important issue, I recommend my friend and prolific author Randy Alcorn’s latest book on “Happiness,” which just happens to be half price at his Eternal Perspectives Ministry website.)