People are less happy than we used to be. Why?

Are people happy? Well, let’s say that people are less happy than we used to be. This really shouldn’t be a surprise.  At least, not for people who are honest.  While the number of millionaires and billionaires continues to rise, the number of people falling lower on the socioeconomic scale is rising even faster.  That, and other factors, leads to a general feeling of being less happy.  Maybe a better way to put it is just plain unhappy.

People are less happy than we used to be. Why? is article #1 in the series: Life changes that take us away from God. Click button to view titles for entire series
Are people happy? People are less happy than we used to be. Why?

The opening is based on a 247tempo.com article titled 50 Ways American Life Has Changed in the Last Decade.

Overall well-being in the United States is in decline, according to a study of 2.5 million people by Gallup and Sharecare, a healthcare information service. They are less happy and more anxious compared to 2009, even though the economy these days is in a healthy, or certainly healthier, state than a decade ago. The biggest drop in well-being took place between 2016 and 2017. Last year was much more balanced, but it also slightly worsened compared to 2017.

Are people less happy?

It’s interesting that one of our political parties keeps talking about how great the economy is right now, while the other takes the opposite point of view.  It’s also worth noting that the quote above comes, in part, from Sharecare, a healthcare information service.

It doesn’t even matter which party is in control at any given time. The one in power talks about how good things are, even if it’s only relatively good compared to how bad it could have been or how bad it used to be.

That says a lot about how people feel.  In spite of the pretty much even split in this country for political support, the feelings of the people tend to be less happy and more anxious compared to 2009.  And the biggest drop was between 2016 and 2017.  Huh.  Think about what happened then.  Think election.  

And now, think mid-terms. Even without a Presidential election on the horizon, things haven’t really changed. It’s – our candidate will be better than yours, no matter what the situation is and how good or bad things might truly be, the party that’s not in power is out to make you feel miserable about your situation. They will make you happy. Without them, people will be less happy.

It seems that we can lie to ourselves.  We can convince ourselves, to some extent, that things are better.  And yet, inside, we know they aren’t.  

However, since our conscious selves refuse to acknowledge what our subconscious selves are well aware of, we don’t do anything about it.  Well, we do a few things.  We become unhappy.  We get anxious.  And we probably get sick, and that’s why Sharecare has the data to support the general feelings of “less happy” and more anxious.

People are less happy – do internal feelings mean anything?

It seems there are some indications that people at least should be happy.  But at the same time, there are indications that people are less happy, if not outright unhappy.  Is there any possible significance to what I said about conscious versus subconscious feelings?

Since this is a site about religion, and especially Christianity, let’s look to the Bible for an answer.  In fact, let’s go to Solomon, who wrote Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. 

Pr 15:13 A happy heart makes the face cheerful,
but heartache crushes the spirit.

Yes, that appears to be fairly obvious. 

The happiness Solomon refers to comes from the heart, not the head.  So it’s the internal, subconscious feeling.  It’s not the one in our head, where we can so easily lie to ourselves.  However, when we look at what the original Hebrew words meant, we see something even deeper than what we’d think in today’s culture, read in English.

Let’s take a look at that, starting with an overall view of this proverb.

Cheerfulness manifested (15:13). “A joyous heart makes for a pleasant face.” The face reflects the mood of the soul. On the other hand, “by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken.” Happiness is shown in the outward look, but sorrow has a deeper and more abiding influence. It touches the inner person, creating despondency and despair. The entire demeanor of a person reveals the condition of the heart.  [1]Smith, J. E. (1996). The wisdom literature and Psalms (Pr 15:13). Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co.

This goes to my point that it’s not what comes out of our mouth, from our brain, that tells how we really feel.  (Yes, the Bible does say that what comes out of our mouth comes from the heart.  But at times, we can control it.  It’s those times – when we’re in control and force ourselves to say things that I’m looking at here.)  So, for our topic today – it’s the look on our faces.  What comes from our soul, our innermost being.  And when we get to words like entire demeanor, that includes whether or not we’re anxious or even sick because of those inner feelings.

Notice the part about when something touches the inner person, creating despondency and despair.  In the rest of this series, we’ll get into some of the changes over the past decade that got us to the point of being less happy or outright unhappy.  But for now, let’s keep looking at this Proverb.

Have a happy heart (15:13)! The benefits will appear on your face, but also on the faces of others as your happiness lifts their spirits. Heartache not only makes for sad faces, but it crushes the spirit. God is not commanding happiness, for He knows there are times for sobriety (see Ecclesiastes 3:4). The call to happiness here in Proverbs is a call to the behavior which makes one happy and avoids heartache, and a reminder that our attitudes are contagious (Prov. 15:13).  [2]Lennox, S. J. (1998). Proverbs: a Bible commentary in the Wesleyan tradition (pp. 150–151). Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House.

Interesting.  our attitudes are contagious.  We probably know this, at some level.  The question is, which is more contagious – what we say or the way we act?

One of the changes that’s occurred over the past decade is the way we communicate with each other.  I submit that the means of communication has an impact on the answer to that question.  Text messages don’t necessarily portray inner feelings, unless there are a lot of emojis or capital letters.  Even with them, it can be hard to tell the difference between sarcasm/humor and real emotions.

But even then, are they real?  In other words, are those emojis and caps coming from the head, where someone pretends to be happy?  Or are they coming from the heart, where someone is something less than happy?  The reader just doesn’t know. 

In fact, even as you read this, you cannot know 100% for sure whether or not this accurately portrays how I feel inside.  If you read more stuff I wrote, you’ll have a better idea.  But from one article?  Probably not. I do try to add lots of qualifiers, adjectives, and out right explanations, to try to help you get my point.

Here’s an example. This morning I was talking with some friends about electric and hybrid vehicles not paying/underpaying for road repairs, since they’re generally funded by gas taxes. If you only heard my words, you’d think I was upset. But when you see I was smiling and nearly laughing, you realize it was just giving one of them a hard time ’cause he drives a Tesla and always talks about how great it is. Things like that only come across in person/face-to-face. Or maybe Zoom.

The thing is though – what do we read?  What kind of people do we associate with?  What do we say to other people?  Is our “world” about our inner self?  Or is it about what’s in our outer self?

If they’re both the same, at least we’re honest with ourselves.  But for the person who’s pretending to be happy, when everything inside is unhappy, there’s an issue that really should be addressed.

Where do the happy heart and cheerful face come from?

The very next verse in Proverbs talks about discerning hearts.

Pr 15:14 The discerning heart seeks knowledge,
but the mouth of a fool feeds on folly.

Discerning is one of those church words we like to use. It’s fine, as long as we know what it means. In this case:

Here he is emphasizing the heart rather than the head of man. He is not talking so much about the accumulating of certain facts but about spiritual discernment or, as someone has put it, “sanctified common sense.” There is a dearth, a famine, of that in the land.  [3]McGee, J. V. (1991). Thru the Bible commentary: Poetry (Proverbs) (electronic ed., Vol. 20, p. 136). Thomas Nelson.

So it’s about the “discerning” heart seeking knowledge/wisdom from God.

Happy outside – unhappy inside

If that’s your situation – happy on the outside but unhappy inside – I suspect you’re not alone.  It feels like that’s the majority of people in this country.  (I wrote The problem of December – it’s depressing over on my other site, so I invite you to check that out as well.)  Why?  What we see in the news, even in the 247tempo.com article, is a strange mixture of politics and health.  People here seem oddly enthusiastic about their political party and/or candidate(s).  Odd, because there’s also this health data and survey pointing to people being less happy.

Those two things – happy with the leaders, but unhappy with our own lives – they make no sense to me.  Why don’t we want to change that?

Here’s something to consider.  Something that seems to be missing, or at least misguided in the world today.  It’s from James, chapter 5.

The Prayer of Faith

Jas 5:13 Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.

Do you see what I mean?

Here’s a hint, if you need it.  I almost stopped writing after I typed: Those two things – happy with the leaders, but unhappy with our own lives – they make no sense to me.  Why don’t we want to change that?

You see, when I write, even if I have something in mind before starting, it often changes.  In Christian church-speak, I go where the Spirit leads me.  The Holy Spirit that is.  While I may have one thing in mind, I often get led to something else. 

In this case, it was a dead end.  I got to that question I asked – and was too deep into the political side of the question.  Couldn’t see the forest or the trees.

Actually, now that I think about it, maybe that’s exactly where the Spirit led me.  To the dead end of looking to political leaders for solutions to our happiness problems.  It’s looking in the wrong place.

But when I took a short break to get some water (some may find that more than a little interesting), I was also saying a quick prayer for where to take this.  So here we go.

All of this is part of being discerning. It takes time. Patience. Not to mention, remember to do it in the heat of the moment.

People are less happy – what does “happy” mean?

It seems odd now, that I wrote the following early in this article, but then had to stop in order to return to that very thought:

Since this is a site about religion, and especially Christianity, let’s look to the Bible for an answer.  In fact, let’s go to Solomon, who wrote Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. 

But after everything we’ve looked at, I believe that’s why there’s so many of what 247tempo.com calls less happy people.  We leave God out of our lives.  Or push Him out.  Ignore Him.  Even deny that God exists.

Happy – εὐθυμέω [euthumeo /yoo·thoo·meh·o/]

The Greek word εὐθυμέω shows up three times in the Bible.  Here they are, with the relevant English word(s) underlined, with context included.

First two occurrences of Happy – εὐθυμέω

The Storm

Ac 27:13 When a gentle south wind began to blow, they thought they had obtained what they wanted; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. 14 Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the “northeaster,” swept down from the island. 15 The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. 16 As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure. 17 When the men had hoisted it aboard, they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Fearing that they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. 18 We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. 19 On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. 20 When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.

Ac 27:21 After the men had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. 22 But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. 23 Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me 24 and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ 25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. 26 Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”

See verse 22. Wow.  keep up your courage.  Bet you didn’t see that one coming, did you?  In the middle of all this looming danger from a shipwreck, with Paul telling the men the ship will be destroyed, we read keep up your courage.  However, what Paul is really saying is “be happy”?  That sounds weird.  Or is it that we just don’t understand what happy means?

Let’s look at the next one.

Yes – the exact same thing.  They’re going to be shipwrecked.  The ship will be destroyed.  But be happy.  Or is it keep up your courage?

25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. 26 Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”

Yes – the exact same thing.  They’re going to be shipwrecked.  The ship will be destroyed.  But be happy.  Or is it keep up your courage?

Third occurrence of Happy – εὐθυμέω

Before answering that, let’s look at the final passage.  James. The one we started with.  But this time with context.

The Prayer of Faith

Jas 5:13 Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. 14 Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

Jas 5:17 Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

Jas 5:19 My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

Yes – that one really is translated as happy.  But which is it?  Happy?  Or keep up your courage?  Or both?

What if it’s all of the above?  Plus something else.  Keep up your courage.  And be happy.  And do both, because of faith.  Faith in God.

Summary of Happy – εὐθυμέω

Let’s look at just the three verses, with a minimum of context.

22 But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. 23 Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me 24 and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’

Paul says to keep up their courage, because the angel of God spoke to him and said everyone would be safe.  Paul has faith that what was said will happen.

25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me.

Jas 5:13 Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.

James starts with this.  Asks if anyone is happy.  But consider the times.  The early church was persecuted.  Leaders were literally being put to death.  Courage was a requirement.  In fact, it was courage beyond belief.  Also, it took courage for Elijah to do what he did.  Everything within the context of what James says points to courage and faith. Again, Paul says keep up their courage.  Have faith, because he has faith.  God will be faithful, so we can have faith and trust Him.

And yet, we read happy only in the translation of what James said.

Thoughts on happy versus keep up your courage

When we read the Bible, there’s an unfortunate need to keep it (relatively) short.  As I’ve said many times, if it included every possible meaning from the rich Hebrew and Greek languages, it would be so large that few, if any, would ever read it.  Instead, we read what the translators think is the single “best” meaning. 

I don’t disagree with what was chosen for that single best meaning in any of the three passages.  As I said though, the unfortunate consequence is that we lose out on the richness that was there originally. 

Keep in mind, Christians believe the Bible is the inspired word of God.  The inspired word refers to the original – the Greek and the Hebrew, not to any translation into another language.  And so, it’s up to us to take the time and effort to learn what that original meant.  Maybe by studying it.  Maybe by what you’re doing now, reading the results of someone else’s work, and hopefully that’s the result of the Holy Spirit rather than just what we come up with on our own.

Sometimes, as I believe is the case here, both meanings apply. But it’s a bit messy to actually use both happy and keep up your courage.

However, having said that it’s messy, isn’t it also correct? I mean, life is messy. Multiple emotions do occur at the same time. We can be both (1) scared, with a need to keep up our courage and (2) happy. For instance, as we saw here, scared, but happy that God will help us keep up our courage!

People are less happy than we used to be – Conclusion

But to God, it’s like something Jesus said.  Something we may not want to do.

Ultimately, when happy means something inside us that God planted way back in the beginning of time – but we look at it on the outside as something completely different – we can never really feel happy.  There will always be a disconnect between the two.  

Let’s look at something else before we finish.

The Little Children and Jesus – Matthew

19:13-15 pp — Mk 10:13-16; Lk 18:15-17

Mt 19:13 Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them.

Mt 19:14 Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 15 When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.

When Jesus says, Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these, He doesn’t mean that we literally become children again.  It’s about trust.  Faith.  Love.  The way only little children can have those things.  Before they’re taught the ways of the world and end up losing God’s kind of trust, faith, or love.  And before they don’t know what happy means anymore.

The truth, God’s truth, is that the only way we can really be happy, as in the εὐθυμέω [euthumeo /yoo·thoo·meh·o/] kind of happy, is with God.  And as long as we look to other sources for our happiness, whether they be people or things, we will always be less happy than we could be.

One of the reasons this is true has to do with the need for courage. Not bravado, or false courage. I mean real courage.

Courage, as in the knowledge that no matter what happens here, God is with us and ultimately, we will be with Him for eternity.

Saying that is one thing.

Having the faith to really know it is another. It’s not an instant thing. It only comes with growth. Trust. Faith.

With that thought in mind, we’ll continue with other changes over the last decade and see what kind of impact they have on our relationship with God.  And therefore, on our level of happiness, less happiness, or outright unhappiness.  Hope to see you on the journey.


Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay


References

References
1 Smith, J. E. (1996). The wisdom literature and Psalms (Pr 15:13). Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co.
2 Lennox, S. J. (1998). Proverbs: a Bible commentary in the Wesleyan tradition (pp. 150–151). Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House.
3 McGee, J. V. (1991). Thru the Bible commentary: Poetry (Proverbs) (electronic ed., Vol. 20, p. 136). Thomas Nelson.

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