If material things were the answer to the question of happiness, we should be the most ecstatic people in history. For a novel I was writing set in the Dark Ages, I researched everyday life in the past, and I’m telling you that we in the developed world have it infinitely better than our ancestors. I’ll give you some examples and then examine the signs we’re not as happy as a materialistic formula would predict we should be.
We can start with health. Our life expectancy is more than twice what it was in the Middle Ages. There’s far too much that we still can’t do, but we can do more now than St. Luke the beloved physician could have ever dreamed of. We don’t have epidemics wiping out half the population of a continent. We have treatments that are unpleasant, but at least they’re not complete fabrications that actually make things worse like bleeding the patient. When we have surgery, we have anesthesia. When we have children, they’re far more likely to have our funeral than we are to have theirs. Our infant mortality and deaths from childbirth, while still incredibly tragic, are a fraction of what they used to be.
Or entertainment. Generally speaking, we can watch and listen to what we want when we want. It’s been within living memory that we were restricted to whatever a few channels on television were carrying that night. And yet, electronics is one of the worst industries for shoplifting. What does that say about people? They’re willing to hurt others (and risk punishment) just to get the latest thing for their own amusement.
Have you ever thought about how impatient people are? They can get downright rude over the most trivial delays, and when they drive, they are willing to break the law and endanger themselves and others just to arrive at their destination a few minutes earlier. What’s ironic is that we have more leisure time than our ancestors would have dreamed of. They used to work from sunup to sundown and then go to sleep (because they had no light bulbs) Monday through Saturday. A five-day workweek was an invention of the last century.
With regards to food, it’s the same with entertainment. What we want we eat when we want. We’re not dependent on the seasons or a good harvest. We don’t have to eat the same old salted meat all winter long. If one area has a bad crop, we get it from somewhere else. We don’t have hunger gnawing at us constantly and the threat of starvation and disease hanging over us like the peasants of medieval Europe.
Now, we have a far from perfect justice system. The rich and famous get away with stuff other people go to prison for, and flimsy excuses get some people off the hook while minor offenses see people locked away. The punishments often vary for the same crime. On the other hand, the government cannot torture us to confess and then burn or draw and quarter us. Judges don’t get to make up bizarre and hideous punishments (just read about some of the methods of execution in ancient times or 17thcentury Hungary).
As far as security, we haven’t had a war between the major powers in 73 years. I’m pretty sure that’s a record in human history. We don’t have raiding parties coming into our neighborhoods every few years to carry off our possessions or enslave our children.
We can keep ourselves comfortable and clean in ways impossible even at the beginning of last century. We can set our houses to whatever temperature we want and wear a fresh set of clothes everyday. We have any color clothes we think will look good on us as opposed to being stuck with whatever dyes the local plants produce.
To stay in touch, we don’t have to send letters that take weeks or months to arrive at their destination, if they get there at all, and then take more weeks and months to return. In a few seconds we can see someone across the world face-to-face. We also get to travel practically wherever we want in relative safety without too much risk of being robbed on the way by brigands lurking in mountains and forests. We can see the world if we like, and we have places set up to attract us with nothing but amusements.
Now, I know many of you are thinking of exceptions to everything I’ve just described. Yes, this world isn’t perfect, and I was speaking in generalizations. But, overall, no one in their right mind would deny that in material terms, we’re richer beyond compare to our forebears.
But are we happier? Well, actually, developed countries have higher rates of depression than undeveloped countries. In my psychology class, the theory they put forward is called the tyranny of choice. The way I understand the theory, developed countries give more freedom to their individuals to make their own decisions, so when their lives end up a mess, they have no one to blame but themselves. I think we could also say that this leisure time which we have and undeveloped countries don’t affords us more time to think about ourselves and our problems and brood over things that bother us.
Or consider the problem with drugs and alcohol. People are willing to risk their health, going to prison, and losing their families to take themselves out of consciousness. Why, if life is so materially good for us? I think Dr. R. C. Sproul had a great explanation for this. We’re told now from middle school up that we are here because of a cosmic game of chance and that when we die we end up as nothing but dust. In other words, nothing we do matters. We go through a lot of pain and heartache, and in the end we get no recompense for it. We do terrible things, feel guilty about it, and have no eternal judge to acquit us. Dr. Sproul thought that such thoughts of a meaningless existence drive people to extremes to be rid of them.
I’m going to work in a really obscure example that illustrates this point. The eighteenth century Prussian army was infamously brutal. The officers and sergeants were very detail-oriented and not shy about cracking down on the most trivial breaches of regulations. You could be beaten for not polishing your buttons, for instance. Naturally, many soldiers deserted, but observers noted that they often became depressed when they returned to a civilian world where people didn’t care what they did. They might not get flogged for being wrong, but they didn’t get much reward for being right either.
What about the family? A lot of people are obviously not very happy with their spouses since approximately half of marriages end in divorce. People make solemn vows to each other in an ecstasy of love, and then in a bitterness of hate they break them. If anything in this world is supposed to make us happy, it’s our family, so clearly something’s not right here.
Are people content? Obviously not, to judge by their spending habits. They can run through vast sums of money to satisfy their tastes, and they’ll even trample each other on Black Friday to get more stuff cheap. How many people wreck themselves with extravagant spending in America? We have more goodies than at any other time in history, and yet we’re willing to act like idiots to get more.
Evidently material things don’t make us happy, at least not in the long-run. We’re built to love God first and then enjoy the material things He provides. That’s the way to fulfillment and joy. In fact, Habakkuk says he for one will be joyful in God even if there are no material blessings, even ones as basic as food. How many of us can say that? But, as St. Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they find their rest in Thee.”