Essay / Culture

ABC’s 20/20 on Happiness

A few weeks ago ABC’s 20/20 featured a story on happiness. If you saw it, I am curious about what you thought as you watched.

The show made several helpful points; for example, that money or popularity does not make that much difference. But to be honest, my overall impression of the program was one of deep disappointment. I say that for two reasons.

First, not one time in the program was happiness defined. This is a serious omission precisely because part of the show’s purpose was to foster happiness in viewers’ lives. In another article I have written, I show how the current understanding of happiness is “a feeling of pleasurable satisfaction.” But from Moses, Solomon, Jesus, Plato, Aristotle, up to the Declaration of Independence, happiness meant “a life of wisdom, virtue and character.” The difference is glaring. But more importantly, according to Jesus of Nazareth and common sense, one gains more pleasurable satisfaction by largely forgetting about it, giving one’s life to others, and seeking wisdom, virtue and character. You gain your life as you lose it for God’s honor and other people’s good. Pleasurable satisfaction is a poor goal, but a great byproduct of a more important goal—becoming good at life. It is sad that the show made no mention of this classic notion of happiness and its relationship to the contemporary notion.

But a second and, in my opinion, more egregious omission characterized the program. Here are four of the most important factors the show identified as conducive of happiness: One must (1) see one’s life—family, job, other circumstances—as a calling; (2) be optimistic towards the future; (3) approach life with a pervasive sense of gratitude; (4) recognize that 40% of one’s happiness is a result of free will and, thus, one should take responsibility for one’s happiness.

There was not one single mention of God in the entire program, but these four factors make sense only if there is a God. A calling requires a Caller. If history has a good purpose and end, then we should be optimistic about the future. Otherwise, who knows? In this latter case, optimism is a placebo. And only on the assumption that God created the world and you for a good purpose can such optimism make sense. Further, Webster’s New College Dictionary defines “gratitude” as “a feeling of appreciation for favors or benefits received.” Gratitude makes sense only if there is a Benefactor. Finally, only if I have a soul can I have free will. If I am my brain or body, then my actions are determined by my physical features and the things that happen to me. Why? Because like all purely physical objects, my brain and body behave according to the laws of physics. If I have a soul, it didn’t come from matter—that would involve getting something (a soul) from nothing (matter bereft of soul). It came from a Big Soul.

Given the obvious connection between happiness and broad questions about God and the meaning of life, does anyone seriously question the fact that the media is overwhelmingly secular? Let me tell you—if more folks acknowledged that, it would certainly make me, well, happy!

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