The Unhappy State of America
Dr. James Emery White
- 2018 Mar 22
Two bits of news recently caught my eye. The first was a New York Times article on Yale University’s most popular class ever (in its 316-year history). It’s PSYC 157: Psychology and the Good Life. Nearly one-fourth of Yale undergraduates registered for it. Laurie Santos, a psychology professor and the head of one of Yale’s residential colleges, who teaches the course, “tries to teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life in the twice-weekly lectures.” Interestingly, a 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that “more than half of undergraduates sought mental health care from the university” while enrolled.
“In reality, a lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb,” said Alannah Maynez, 19, a freshman taking the course. “The fact that a class like this has such large interest speaks to how tired students are of numbing their emotions – both positive and negative – so they can focus on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment.”
One of Santos’ principle lessons is that the things Yale undergraduates most associate with achieving happiness – a high grade, a prestigious internship, a good-paying job – do not increase happiness at all. “Scientists didn’t realize this in the same way 10 or so years ago,” Santos says, “that our intuitions about what will make us happy, like winning the lottery and getting a good grade – are totally wrong.”
This correlates with the second bit of news that caught my eye.
The findings of a Gallup survey were released on “subjective well-being.” Translation: happiness.
Shortest précis on the findings: we’re not happy.
The survey of more than 2.5 million Americans examined how “people feel in their day-to-day lives across key dimensions of well-being, including physical health and wellness; having supportive personal and family relationships; financial and economic security; having a sense of purpose; and connection to one’s community.”
The overall results “show a nation where well-being is in sharp decline.” In fact, 2017 reflected “the largest year-over-year decline in the 10-year history of the Well-Being Index.”
Christians do not traffic in “happiness.” Jesus made many promises to His followers, but a happy life was not one of them. Those who convey a “health and wealth” or “prosperity” gospel do not convey the gospel of Jesus at all.
But that does not mean that the “anxious, stressed, unhappy” undergrads – not to mention the sweeping lack of well-being across our nation – isn’t a Jesus issue.
Here is a simple conviction that I believe to the core of my being: every life on this planet, no matter what the circumstances of their life might be, would be better if it had Christ at the center of it.
Every life would be better if it could experience real liberation from guilt and shame that comes through even a single drink from the well of grace Christ offers and, through that, experience the forgiveness of sin.
Every life would be better with a deep and clear sense of true north in terms of navigating what’s right and wrong, true and false, good and bad.
Every life would be better with the pulsating energy of the Holy Spirit coursing through their veins, changing and transforming them from the inside out into someone who is more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, more patient, more kind, more good, more faithful, more gentle and more self-controlled.
Every life would be better experiencing the new community Christ came to establish where you can love and be loved, know and be known, serve and be served, celebrate and be celebrated.
“JESUS 101” – Now, that’s a course worth taking and one that would move the Well-Being Index up a notch or two.
James Emery White
Richard Florida, “The Unhappy States of America,” CityLab, March 2018, read online.
“State of American Well-Being: 2017 State Well-Being Rankings,” Gallup, February 2018, read online.
David Shimer, “Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness,” The New York Times, January 26, 2018, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.