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Saturday, November 02, 2013

Happiness and Joy: Why is America a Sadder Place Than It Used to Be?

© Floyd Scholz, Master Carver
I wound up in a discussion with some banjo players recently about happiness and joy. A recent study found that the United States, the world's entertainment and fun leader and arguably the wealthiest in the world (how else could we afford that much debt), ranked a mere 21st in "happiness" among all nations. Ironically, Iceland, a land of perpetual winter, with a population ranked nearly the highest among nations for alcoholism and seasonal affective disorder ranked number 1 in "happiness".  Given that a pint of beer costs what most people make in a day there, one has to be pretty determined, not to mention hard-working to have an alcohol problem in Iceland.  So why, asked one wag, aren't we happier than we are?

At the risk of offending ardent feminists, I'm going to comment on this matter. I believe it has something to do with sex - not the kind you have mind you, but the kind you are. Men and women ARE different. The thought police like to say we're no different, but we are.  Scientists once tried to prove it was just how we were raised by giving girl children building blocks and other boy toys and by giving boys Barbie dolls and play houses when they were toddlers in order to demonstrate that it was all about environment.  What they learned was that building blocks are useful in building the accouterments for hosting tea parties and in building play houses and the toy people to live in them.  They also learned that if you bend Barbie at the waist and grasp her by the legs, she makes a serviceable gun and playhouses are good cover in a firefight.

Happiness is experienced differently for different people.  Men, a congenitally goal-directed lot find happiness more frequently in pursuit sports, combat sports and games and in hobbies which produce something like woodworking, hot-rod building, gunsmithing and comet-spotting.  Women, on the other hand are biologically hard-wired to create and nurture family circles tend to find happiness in social activities, collecting, making stuff for others and things which serve to make those around them happy with some sort of relative uniformity.

I worked as a recreation therapist for many years and found that women gained more therapeutic benefit from activities that met this need to create balance and fairness and nurture happiness in the entire group. Even when I had girls going along with boys in horse-back riding activities, the boys were all about racing, positioning their horse farther ahead in the line, exploring trails. For the girls it was more about the social aspects of the trail ride. Even when they engaged in "racing" it was usually more about establishing a social bond than it was about winning the race.  The only times I ever got hard-nosed competiton with girls was over boys or when it was my happy circle vs. your happy circle. 

My contention is that as women in American culture have moved into leadership roles, they've brought with them this need for everybody to be happy (a good thing in healthy families) into the culture itself. We've become less about what we accomplish and more about how we feel as a result. But I think men and women are wired one way or the other, whether you believe God did it or some lengthy evolutionary process. I think as women have brought their need for everything to be a win/win into the public square, it's changed the game.  I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad thing. I am saying that it explains the rise of progressive socialism (the political need to make everyone happy and equal) and the increasing difficulty we have as Americans with being happy.

It seems that for women to be happy, everyone around them must be happy or their joy cannot be complete. It is why women take hostess duties so seriously. Biologically, they need for everyone at the party to be having a good time or they cannot be happy themselves. Don't confuse happiness with joy, however. 

When Christians talk about joy, it's a different thing than happiness, which is more transitory. Joy is a transcendent experience - a confidence in the outcome of life. Joy is something we get when we've made sense of our life story and gained peace with who we are and what we are. If we gain joy, then happiness comes far more easily to us. As Nehemiah said, "The joy of the Lord is my strength."

There are those who accept the feminine ideal of happiness - everyone being okay - who also have come to the mistaken conclusion that in order for everyone to be happy we all must be equal. By "equal" they take it to mean "the same". Unfortunately, for that theory, making everybody the same (uniforms, equal pay no matter what job you do, same houses, same transportation, etc.) sameness seems to have have exactly the opposite effect.

Perhaps our problem is that Americans have lost their joy. Perhaps, where once we were certain that life would get better and that there was some meaning to our sojourn here on this earth, we have come to think of life as either an arbitrary crap shoot, the result of random chance and random evolution or, worse yet, the result of exploitation and manipulation by the privileged class. I think that's an artifact of the rise of the introduction of a pervasive post-modernist philosophy into our culture. Post-modernism rejects the idea that things will get better and that life has meaning. There was a poster/bumper sticker that was popular in the 70s and 80s that proclaimed, "Shit happens!" The underlying message was that things just happen arbitrarily. There is no meaning; no grand purpose. You can't do anything about it. The supposedly wise among us, the university professors and television pundits, proclaimed it a realistic view of the world and many in our culture accepted it uncritically as truth. Our cutting edge films and television shows these day reflect that emptiness and despair.

It's as though the whole country has developed bipolar disorder and swings alternately between despair and mania - neither of which are any fun let me tell you. It makes sense that it should be so, if, as the gurus say, life is meaningless.  Fortunately, there is still a sizable core of Americans left who believe life does mean something, that we ARE going somewhere good and that playing the banjo on the back porch is plenty fun and expresses our inner joy thank you very much.

Just one man's opinion,

Tom King

© 2013 by Tom King

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