There is good news in America today. Unemployment is down as the economy is booming. Jobs are available to all. Happy times should be here again.
An economy-centered vision of society holds that plentiful jobs automatically lead to happiness. Give everyone a good job, they claim, and it will increase the person’s self-respect. Everything else will be fine.
Thus, Americans should be happy. But they are not. In fact, people are more dissatisfied with their lives now than they were in 2009 immediately after the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Clearly something is wrong with the jobs-equal-happiness equation.
A Distorted Economy-Driven Vision of Society
Despite evidence to the contrary, this jobs-are-everything narrative drives American politics and elections. Candidates on both the left and right have adopted full employment rhetoric as the talking points for their campaigns. Even now, optimistic reports of job gains dominate the national debate as proof that things are getting better.
There is nothing wrong with rejoicing over the increase in jobs. However, it is easy to read too much into it. There are other factors regarding happiness that are not on the economic charts.
A survey of 2.5 million Americans by the Gallup Organization and the healthcare information service Sharecare claims “subjective well-being” is down everywhere. People may have jobs but they are worried, depressed and polarized.
The 2018 “Happiness” Study
The 2018 “happiness” study uses well-being as its happiness metric. It reported on those hard-to-quantify human elements that make up people’s day-to-day lives. Other factors included personal and family relationships, sense of purpose and links to community.
The results showed not a single state registered a statistically significant improvement in well-being in 2017. Overall, America registered its largest year-to-year drop in the ten years since Gallop has tracked happiness trends. Among the reasons cited for unhappiness were increased depression, daily physical pain, and constant worries. People also reported declining support of family and friends and dissatisfaction with their standard of living. The states reporting the greatest declines included those in the Sunbelt, Rust Belt and West Coast. Health and wealth did not appear to make a significant difference.
When data was analyzed over time, Gallup found that well-being had declined in all 50 states between 2009 and 2017. In fact, wealthier states and those with higher levels of education registered a greater decline in well-being. Those with higher levels of poverty showed a slightly more positive change in well-being over time.
The Flawed Materialistic Vision of Happiness
Gallup’s happiness survey obviously does not exclude better jobs or more money as factors of happiness. It does, however, disprove the popular notion that economic motives are the exclusive or most important factors contributing to happiness. More spiritual elements must be factored into the equation, many of which involve human relationships.
The Gallup report reinforces the findings that have long puzzled sociologists who have studied modern materialism and found it wanting in happiness.
“Amidst the satisfaction people feel with their material progress,” writes sociologist Robert E. Lane in his book, The Loss of Happiness, “there is a spirit of unhappiness and depression haunting advanced market democracies throughout the world, a spirit that mocks the idea that markets maximize well-being and the eighteenth-century promise of a right to the pursuit of happiness under benign governments of people’s own choosing.”
Materialism Can Breed Frustration
Materialism offers huge opportunities for entertainment, pleasure, and excitement. More consumer goods, technological products and greater health options only make the possibilities for happiness greater. However, the bottom line is that happiness eludes modern society.
Lane explains that “The richer the society and its individuals become, the less purchasable are the goals that bring them happiness.” Thus, material goods can also breed frustration and be a major cause of the pervasive sadness and depression.
Weariness for Spiritual Things
A materialistic society inevitably leaves a profound void because people have spiritual needs that must also be satisfied.
When these needs are ignored, it gives rise to a condition that Saint Thomas Aquinas calls acedia, which he defines as the weariness for holy and spiritual things and a subsequent sadness of living. As a spiritual being, the man afflicted with acediadenies the spiritual appetites.
When material goods are exclusively sought, it provokes a conscious turning away from holy and spiritual things. It leads to the intense, feverish activity of modern life that is often an attempt to hide acedia’seffects of listlessness, low spirits, and lack of joy.
Jobs are important but they are not the most important things in life. They do not determine happiness. More important are those spiritual needs that address the meaning and purpose of life.
Ultimately, the modern world does not want to admit that material happiness is limited. It can even lead to unhappiness since finite material things can never satisfy the insatiable desires of the soul, which desires the infinite goodness of God.