Means and Ends
Are you happy? Would you like to be happier? Are there tweaks to your habits that could move you up a few notches on the happiness scale? How is happiness achieved, maintained, measured? I come across a lot of articles these days on happiness. Maybe it’s because there is so little of it out there in our depressed, anxious, and addicted times. Maybe I’ve reached that life-stage where my eyes are drawn to them like a moth to a flame. Maybe the algorithms are steering my my weary and manipulable brain down the paths they have deemed most likely to be profitable. Maybe Elon Musk is somehow to blame.
Whatever the reasons, it seems like there’s a lot of chatter about happiness out there these days. One question that showed up in a piece in The New York Times a few months back had to do with who was happier, conservatives or liberals (after all, why not add the question of who’s winning at happiness to the culture wars machine?). Turns out, it’s conservatives. The article pondered two questions in relation to this relatively consistent finding:
- Why are conservatives more likely to say they’re happier?
- How can liberals live happier lives?
In response to the first, there are two broad tracks, one less flattering than the other. To begin with the negative, conservatives tend to be happier with the status quo than liberals. There is a sense in which it is virtuous to be unhappy because it reveals a restless moral impulse and a desire for something better. As the article puts it, “If your politics are about social justice, change and progress, then it stands to reason that you might feel unhappy with life as it is.” Indeed. The more positive reason why conservatives tend to self-report as happy more than liberals has to do with their embrace of and investment in faith, family, and community.
What’s a liberal to do, then? Leaving aside the question of how one should orient oneself toward the status quo, liberals tend to marry less and later than conservatives. They also tend to be more secular. Neither one of these trends seems likely to change any time soon. Are liberals doomed to be unhappy? Is there nothing but dour moralistic lonely striving on the horizon? This may have its rewards, but they seem rather meagre and unsustainable over a lifetime. What do you do when the very institutions that might improve your happiness are precisely the ones that you have eschewed?
The article lands where so many do when it comes to religion and happiness these days. If you’re looking for a bit of a boost in the happiness department, and if you can stomach it, you might reconsider “social institutions” like religion. Maybe you could find one that isn’t too demanding and focuses more on community than content. Perhaps somewhere that provides volunteering opportunities? Social gatherings where you can meet like-minded people? Religion is thus predictably subsumed under the broader umbrella of “life satisfaction” or “mental health.” It’s one strategy among others that might be accessed in meeting the needs of the self.
I know that something like the above is often what brings people to church. I have met many people over the years whose primary, if not exclusive motivation for coming to church is social. They’re not buying what the church is selling, necessarily, but they recognize that they need to get outside of themselves or they’re lonely or their kids need a bit of religion (but only a bit! It always puzzles me when people imagine that their kids somehow need the very thing that they have largely rejected or relegated to a dusty corner of the attics of their lives). I have seen many people come to church primarily as a (often temporary) strategy for social or personal improvement.
This might be the point of proceedings where you expect me to say something like, “We need to be less self-interested in our approach to religion.” As it happens, I think in a weird way we aren’t self-interested enough. Or at least not in the right ways and for the right reasons. We are concerned only about a little sliver of our selves. We ought to be concerned about far more than “happiness.” I say this acknowledging that I like feeling happy as much the next person! But happiness seems like such a small thing when compared to the heroic existential themes that have long fired the religious imagination. Sin and souls, salvation and holiness, transcendent meaning and purpose, self-denial and service to humanity, inner peace, love, beauty, forgiveness, absolution, and the cultivation of durable virtue. Happiness can (and does) weave its way in and out of these things. But wherever it shows up—and for however long—it is a byproduct, not a goal.
Like so many other things in our particular cultural moment, the religious quest seems to have been colonized by the totalizing categories of personal wellness and mental health. All things must now bow to these masters. Our horizons have shrunk; our vision has weakened; our understanding of ourselves as spiritual beings has atrophied. The grand spiritual pursuit of the meaning of life and the nature of the human calling has been reduced to a “social institution” that can be an aid in improving happiness metrics and providing opportunities for “civic engagement.” What once represented the end is now little more than a means. Maybe. If it works for you.