The Happiness Index

In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal James Brovard reported:

In recent years, numerous experts have declaimed that the gross domestic product is a flawed measure of whether citizens are truly thriving. President Obama’s designee for World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, for example, warned that “the quest for growth in GDP and corporate profits has in fact worsened the lives of millions of women and men.”  In light of this growing concern, the Obama administration is financing research to devise a new measure of happiness. A National Academy of Sciences panel is analyzing proposals for surveying Americans’ “subjective well-being” to guide federal policy making.

The article went on to observe:

At a Brookings Institution workshop last November, leading happiness-survey experts (including National Academy of Science panelists) suggested that “policy makers may want to educate the public and present metrics so that a growth in well-being from, say, 7.2 to 7.4 provides as much meaning as would a 2 percent growth in GDP.”

There can be little doubt that measuring our wellbeing in terms of GDP has limited value.  Apart from what it tells us about the state of the economy, there is really very little that it can tell us.

It cannot help us measure the worth of what we make or do.  It cannot tell us whether our activity is socially redeeming.  There is no necessary relationship between the GDP and the nurture of human potential.  And the GDP cannot tell us anything about the trajectory of our culture — its depth, quality, or texture.

But the choice to measure happiness — never mind “educate the public” about the value of the metrics that measure it — is hardly an improvement from a spiritual point of view.  The happiness obsession is simply another cultural distraction from God’s call on our lives.

Yet, arguably, it is happiness that dominates our thinking.  When I talk with audiences about our emotional lives I often argue that our approach is best summarized as follows:

  • Maximize the good feelings.
  • Minimize the bad feelings.
  • If you are feeling bad, get back to feeling good as soon as possible.

I have yet to have anyone argue otherwise.

Don’t misunderstand.  I enjoy feeling good.  But there is a difference between enjoying good feelings and living for good feelings. The former is an understandable condition of human life.  It could even be argued that delight, joy, and happiness are the good gifts of God.  But when we live for good feelings several things happen that are spiritually corrosive and misleading:

  • One, our happiness becomes the center around which life revolves in ways that are fundamentally selfish and self-serving.
  • Two, we lose both the spiritual and moral compass for decision-making or we bend our reading of that compass to insure that we are happy.
  • Three, the purpose of our lives is bartered away in favor of an episodic and diminished vision that is far smaller than the vision God has for our lives.

The last thing our country needs is a happiness expert.  We need fulfillment experts that offer a means of measuring the quality of our lives against their God-given purpose.

That, of course, is not a measurement that will ever win widespread ascent across our culture.  But it is or should be part of the church’s mission.  That requires changes, however.  Among the changes needed are these:

  • Worship that invites prayer and meditative space.
  • Preaching that invites spiritual reflection and self-assessment.
  • Group and individual spiritual direction that is made widely available.
  • Pastoral care that moves beyond spiritual fire fighting and focuses instead on what was once described as “the cure of souls.”
  • Catechesis and teaching that explores the spiritual landscape.

There are other things that churches can and should do as a part of their mission.  But in the absence of this emphasis people will continue to wonder what the church has to do with their spiritual lives and they will depend upon the happiness index to guide their day-to-day choices.

While we are waiting for parishes and parishioners to awaken to the importance of that task, those of us who are serious about our journey can rely on the simple, but profound guidance offered by Ignatius of Loyola:

  • Ask yourself daily, which of this day’s experiences drew me closer to God and others in love?
  • Which experiences drove me away from God and others in love?
  • What does the balance of the two tell me about the state of my soul and the shape of my life?
  • Are there ways in which God is prompting me to change the way in which I live?

Ours is not a journey devoted to happiness, it is a journey into God.  And the depth of that journey is the only index that matters.


About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.