Monday, March 25, 2019

The Decline of Happiness

It's official.  We are becoming less happy in the United States.  And it's been measured in a report by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network in partnership with the Ernesto Illy Foundation

In general, since the World Happiness Report started in 1973, American happiness peaked in the late 1980s and has been down ever since.  The report asks, "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days - would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?"  It looks like we're more on the "not too happy" side of things.  According to the report, both adults and adolescents were reporting significantly less happiness than they had in the 2000s, let alone the late 1980s.  In addition, numerous indicators of low psychological well-being such as depression, suicidal ideation, and self-harm increased sharply among adolescents since 2010, particularly among girls and young women.

By most accounts, we in the United States should be happier now than every.  Violent crime is low, unemployment is low, and income per capita is steadily growing.  And yet here we are.  As our standard of living improves, so should our happiness.  But this does not seem to be the case.

If we look at the broader report, we see that the United States ranks 19th among countries in the World Happiness rankings.  That's one spot down from last year, which was four spots down from the previous year, and so on.  Compared to the happiest countries, America has declining social support, and increases in obesity and substance abuse.  Finland, this years happiest country, boasts a good work-life balance, generous parental leave and other policies helpful to parents, universal healthcare, and lots of time spent in nature.

The report even included a special section on the "Sad State of Happiness in America," which pointed to a different, more insidious culprit.  The shift in leisure time to isolating digital platforms.

Several studies have found that adolescents and young adults to spend more time on digital media are lower in well-being.  For example, girls spending 5 or more hours a day on social media are three times more likely to be depressed than non-users, and heavy-internet users are twice as likely to be unhappy.  Overall, activities related to smartphones and digital media are linked to less happiness, and those not involving technology are linked to more happiness.

Correlation between activities and general happiness, 8th and 10th graders, Monitoring the Future, 2013-2016 (controlled for race, gender, SES, and grade level)

Notice that the ones that bring the most happiness, beyond sufficient sleep, generally involve live, social interaction.  How ironic that a medium designed to bring us closer together makes us more isolated, more depressed, and less happy.

"It is not good for man to be alone."

I wonder why we do not bring up this part of the Gospel more often.  The Good News.  That the followers of God will no longer be alone.  That He promises to always be with us.

"Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go."
Joshua 1:9

"The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud signing."
Zephaniah 3:17

"Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
Matthew 28:20

"For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Hebrews 8:38-39

We see from the chart, that religious services rate as an activity that generally brings us happiness.  There is the camaraderie, the family, the fellowship.  The bond of believers that lifts our spirits.  In the best churches, we find true fellowship that bears one another's burdens, that truly binds us together in Christian love.  The kind that is contagious.

But, if possible, I think we underplay the reminder that we are not alone.  That no matter the situation, the Lord is with us.

We added a new song to the worship service yesterday entitled "Another in the Fire" by Hillsong.  Through the verses and the choruses, it is a wonderful reminder of the Lord's presence with us always.

There's a grace when the heart is under fire
Another way when the walls are closing in
And when I look at the space between
Where I used to be and this reckoning
I know I will never be alone.

The title and the hook of the song refers to the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and how they were thrown into the fiery furnace.  How after the three men were thrown into the furnace, the people saw four figures instead, with one shining like a "son of the gods".  Regarded by many as a "Christophany," or appearance of Jesus before His human birth, it remains in any interpretation a powerful metaphor of Christ walking and being with us through it all.

The verses illustrate this concept beautifully.

There was another in the fire
Standing next to me
There was another in the water
Holding back the seas
And should I ever need reminding
Of how I've been set free
There is a cross that bears the burden
Where another died for me

There is another in the fire

And through the song, the tense changes us to remind us that God is the one who was, is and will be.  "There was/is/will be another in the fire."

So no matter what you have been through, no matter what you are facing, no matter what lie ahead, you do not have to face it alone.  There is One who wants to be there through it all.

I'll count the joy come every battle
'Cause I know that's where You'll be

That should be reason enough to be happy.

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