The Happiness Index

The Happiness Index May 16, 2012

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.


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