Last week, we talked about suicide, how it’s on the rise in the United States. We talked about the difficulty of pinpointing a cause for all these suicides. Today I’d like for us to talk about something that I think may be a main contributor to the rise in suicides.
A number of different organizations put out studies that measure how satisfied Americans are with their lives, that measure how happy the people in the United States are. They show something disturbing. In 2017, unhappiness in the United States reached its highest proportions ever recorded. By some measures, two thirds of the population is unhappy; by other measures, even more than that are unhappy.
One study was especially disturbing. It was done by the Gallup organization and a Canadian research company. It gives a net happiness score for Americans. It’s 30%, and it’s the lowest of all areas measured.
Western Europe has a net happiness score of 50%, Latin America has a net happiness score of 63 %, and Africa has a net happiness score of 66 %.
That doesn’t seem reasonable, does it? People who live in countries with standards of living that come nowhere near to approaching ours are twice as happy as we are. People who live in countries that often have repressive and totalitarian governments are twice as happy as we are. That’s unreal.
In another survey, this one covering just the United States, happiness decreased by a statistically significant amount in 21 states in the year 2016, and happiness increased by a statistically significant amount in no state.
There are a lot of unhappy people in the United States.
I had realized this myself, years ago, that Americans are relatively unhappy, before I had ever heard of these happiness indexes or had any idea of the statistics showing that Americans are so much more unhappy. Until the year 2000, I had never been outside the United States. There were some areas in southern Germany I wanted to see, and I thought, “Why not go?” This was before the age of the internet like it is today, so I went to a travel agent and told her the things I wanted to see. She said there were no group tours that would take me to those places, since they were near little towns and weren’t tourist attractions, and that if I wanted to go, I’d have to go alone. So, she made reservations for me to fly from Charlotte, North Carolina to Munich, Germany. She made reservations for a rental car and a hotel in two different little towns. One place she didn’t have the ability to make a reservation in, so I called over there on the phone and made it myself. So here I go. I fly to Munich, just me, pick up a rental car, ask for a map at the rental car desk, and using that, drive down into southern Germany to a small town where they seldom see American tourists, and there I was. I stayed there a few days, almost got in trouble poking around a construction site, didn’t think anyone was there, but a construction worker saw me. I finally convinced him I wasn’t up to no good, must have done a pretty good job of it, because he took my picture there and then had me take his picture there so I’d have it when I got home. Then I drove, on the Autobahn, where they go 120 miles per hour, to another town, where I did something I had never done in my life. I picked up hitchhikers, but they seemed innocent, and it turned out they were. Then I visited another little place, then finally drove back to Munich and flew back home. I had never been out of the United States, and I just went over there, cold turkey, alone, just by myself.
It was a wonderful experience. Just me, alone, traveling to small places where tourists seldom go, meeting and interacting with normal people in their everyday lives.
I absolutely loved it. That was the first of 15 trips I would eventually make to Germany, so far.
Why did I like it so much? One reason. It hit me like a ton of bricks how happy those people seemed. It was a completely different mood than I had ever experienced. People walked with a spring in their step, they talked like they were happy, they moved like they were happy, they looked like they were happy. In everything they did, you could sense an elevated mood compared to what I was used to seeing in people. It absolutely floored me. I could not believe the difference. It was like being in another world.
So, the statistics about happiness are not just statistics to me. I experienced it personally, long before I ever knew about the statistics. Americans, in general, are way more unhappy than other people. But why?
After all, we have so much! Unemployment is down; consumer confidence is up. But, the factors driving this are not economic factors. It’s not economic uncertainty and financial worries that are making people unhappy. It’s deeper than that. People are unhappy with their careers; they’re unhappy with their relationships; they’re unhappy with their lives in general. People say their lives lack meaning and purpose. On top of that, Americans are isolated from each other. 40% of Americans say they are lonely, double the amount that said they were lonely 30 years ago. Some studies put the percentage at over 70% who feel lonely. Younger Americans say they feel no connection to their communities and the people who live around them. People are just plain unhappy.
Why? What is it that people are lacking?
One of the things I pay attention to in regard to religion is the Pew Religious Landscape Survey. It measures changing trends in religion. They break the results down into different religious groupings, including Christianity and other religions as well as people who claim no religion. It includes a measure of what they call “spiritual peace and well-being.” The results are interesting. Religious people, in general, tend to report having more of a sense of spiritual peace and well-being than non-religious people, and that’s what you’d expect. You’d expect religious people to have more of a sense of spiritual peace and well-being than non-religious people.
But the surprising thing is that a significant percentage of religious people report seldom or never having a sense of spiritual peace and well-being. So there are a lot of people in the United States, both religious and non-religious, who do not have a sense of spiritual peace and well-being.
Is that where the unhappiness problem is really coming from, that people don’t have a sense of peace in their lives? I think so.
Groups other than Pew that measure these things use different terms than “spiritual peace and well-being.” Some call it “satisfaction,” others call it “sense of purpose and meaning in life;” but whatever term it goes by, what is really lacking is a sense of peace with life, a sense of satisfaction, a sense of purpose and meaning. I believe that’s what people are really talking about when they say they’re unhappy.
In surveys about what people really want, happiness stands out as something people say they really want, but they also say they can’t define happiness and don’t know what will make them happy. Happiness seems to be something we want but can’t seem to define, and most importantly, we don’t know how to achieve it. We don’t know what will make us happy.
There are other things people say they want. People say they want freedom, in the sense of freedom to find their true purpose. They want a sense of purpose, direction, and meaning in life. People say they want clarity about who they are. They want to understand their place in the world and how they fit in with the world.
But, overwhelmingly, people say they don’t have those things.
And that’s true across the board. Men feel they lack those things slightly more than women, but women feel they lack them, too. People of all races, economic levels, and educational levels feel they lack them. Rich or poor, liberal or conservative, intelligent or not-so-intelligent—across the board, people feel they lack those things. People want freedom, purpose, meaning, direction in life, clarity about who they are, but they don’t have them. Even people who have high-paying jobs, people who have really nice houses and some measure of financial security say they lack those things. In fact, according to some measures, people who have the most materially are the ones who feel most lacking in the things they really want.
The bottom line is that people are unhappy because they lack the things they really want, and the things they really want, most of all, are things money can’t buy.
When you boil it all down to one thing, what people want is a sense of peace in their own souls.
So how do we find peace in our own souls? It comes from looking out at the world and being able to make sense of what we see, being able to see some meaning, direction, and purpose to what’s happening around us. It comes from seeing how we fit into all that.
Without that, life can seem like drudgery, just slogging through. No meaning, no direction, no ability to make sense out of things we see going on. No sense of purpose. We live a lifetime devoted to striving in a relentless search for happiness, only to never find it, and will we one day die and it all have been for nothing?
That’s how a lot of people say they feel, and I think that’s why so many people are unhappy. That’s why suicides are increasing in this country. It all seems so pointless.
In order to have true peace, we need to feel like we’re a part of something bigger than we are; we need to feel like there’s something more than the mundane world, that beyond all the struggles and troubles and tragedies and heartaches of life, there is something more, something deeper.
True meaning, direction, and purpose in life is found in knowing where we came from and where we’re going. It’s found from being able to make sense of the things we see happening around us. Christianity should tell us those things. After all, those are the very questions religion is supposed to answer.
But Christianity has gotten sidetracked on other issues to the point that it doesn’t speak to the most basic things. Most versions of Christianity no longer speak to the deep questions people really wonder about, the things people really want to understand, or if they do, they provide rote answers that are just words but don’t really explain anything.
So what are the things Christianity should be talking about, and what kind of answers should Christianity be providing?
Well, let’s start at the beginning. We came from God. We’re here because God made us. God made us because God wants us. God intended, from the beginning, that we would have a good life filled with good things. That’s why the Garden of Eden is sometimes called paradise.
But something happened. We’re not sure exactly what happened or how it happened, but we know it was something God did not want to happen. Whatever it was that happened, the result of it is that things are no longer good, the way God made them to be. That means our lives are no longer the way God intended them to be, because something happened that introduced “not-good.”
Things are the way they are today not because God made it this way, but because something else came in and spoiled things. But God is not willing to let things go on like this. In fact, God is working to make things once again be as He originally made them to be. But it’s not something that God can accomplish instantly, with just a wave of His hand. It’s hard, even for God, and even for God, it will take a long time. But, God will one day succeed, and He will make sure that nothing is ever able to change things again.
That, I believe, is the message of Christianity. That is what Christianity is all about. It tells us who we are, why we’re here, and it makes sense of what’s going on around us.
That’s probably a lot different from what you’ve heard Christianity is all about, but I really believe that is what it’s all about.
We look out at the world, and we see so much trouble, so many bad things—natural disasters, sickness and disease, murders and bombings and shootings, governments treating human beings inhumanely, so much heartache and suffering in the world. We see deception and lies and trickery winning; in fact, it seems like deception, lies, and trickery is the only way to get ahead. That’s what the real world is like. It’s not a nice place.
But we know God didn’t cause any of that; God doesn’t want any of that; none of any of that is part of God’s plan in any way whatsoever. We know that God is working against it this very moment, and in fact, God has been working against it ever since it started. It will take God a long time to defeat it, but one day He will defeat it.
When that happens, there won’t be anything but good, and God will give us a life beyond anything we could ever imagine.
So that’s the big picture—that’s where we came from and where we are going. There is a point to it. The point is that God is going to defeat the things that are causing life to be bad and then give us a new life where there is no bad. That’s the aim, the goal, what things are moving toward. Things are moving toward a future that’s better than anything we could ever imagine.
Some people look to Christianity as a magic wand to take away the troubles of life. And, unfortunately, some Christians have promoted Christianity as a magic wand to take away the troubles of life. But Christianity is not a magic wand to take away the troubles of life. People who expect it to be that soon realize it is not. Life still has troubles and heartaches; the world is still full of bad things. Because of that, it’s easy to reject Christianity. I mean, if it can’t take away the troubles and heartaches of life, what good is it?
Well, Christianity doesn’t take away the troubles and heartaches of life and doesn’t stop the bad things that happen. But it does allow us to make sense of them. Most importantly, it tells us that these things won’t last. Yes, they’re here now; yes, they are a problem now; yes, they make life hard now. But they’re not going to last forever, because God is going to defeat them. And when that happens, God will give us a new life in a new world, a life beyond anything we could imagine.
That’s really what Christianity is all about.
We look around us and see so much bad. But it’s not going to last. It’s only temporary. It will all come to an end. So we don’t allow ourselves to get bogged down in all this stuff that’s going on now. We don’t allow ourselves to get discouraged or despondent. We stand up with our head high and we march on through it, because we know that on the other side is a life we can’t even imagine. We’re not going to be here forever; we’re not planted here; all this stuff going on around us won’t have the last word. We’re just marching through all this mess on our way to somewhere else.
Remember how Jesus said in John 16, “In the world you will have tribulation, but have courage, for I have overcome the world.”
The word translated as tribulation literally means “great difficulties,” and the word translated as overcome literally means “conquered.”
And so what Jesus tells us is this: In the world we will have great difficulties, but we are to have courage and be confident, for He has conquered the world. The world doesn’t have the last word, God does.
If you want to, you can choose to live your life believing that.