Today’s Breakpoint Commentary is a good follow-up to the one I posted earlier on the pursuit of happiness.

Vanity of Vanities
The Source of Happiness

August 24, 2006

Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.

Tracy Ballard turns up the volume on her new wireless iPod. She basks in the rays streaming from her bathroom skylight and admires the iridescent glass tiles beneath her feet.

Only the flush of her husband’s morning trip to the bathroom could interrupt her enjoyment of this resort-like setting.

When Tracy and her husband, John, of Washington, D.C., decided that their bathroom needed a little upgrade, they didn’t stop at new sinks. No, they equipped their tile-covered getaway with a 9-by-4-foot shower, fully arrayed with five shower heads, four body sprays, instant steam, and portable speakers for their iPod.

Tracy and John are just one of many American couples who now deck out their bathrooms with every amenity—including wide-screen TVs with surround sound! A Washington Post article predicted that just this year, Americans will spend $22 billion on luxury bathrooms alone—that’s ten times what America will spend on AIDS research! This trend toward increasingly decadent powder rooms reflects a phenomenon author Gregg Easterbrook describes as the “progress paradox.” He explains that Americans are wealthier, healthier, and safer than they were fifty years ago.

But here’s the catch—the number of people who say they are “very unhappy” has risen 20 percent since the 1950s. And rates of depression are 10 times higher than they were fifty years ago.

What’s wrong with our generation? Why are we so unhappy when we have so much?

Clearly, $120,000 latrines are not the answer.

J. P. Moreland, in his new book, The Lost Virtue of Happiness, says that we are miserable because we have a distorted definition of happiness. We describe happiness as a feeling of pleasure achieved through the gratification of our physical and emotional desires. Underlying that definition is the assumption that our lives are our own and it’s up to us to maximize comfort and minimize pain.

According to Moreland, we’ve got it all wrong. The classical notion of happiness (or eudaimonia in Greek), was “a life well lived, a life of virtue and character, a life that manifests wisdom, kindness, and goodness”—not a life consumed with self-gratification.

“Real life does not come naturally,” Moreland explains. “It is counterintuitive. It is a skill we have to learn. That’s because the way to real life is not something we get, but something we give.”

The ancient Greek philosophers and our American forefathers understood this, but modern Americans seem to have forgotten it. We’ve forgotten that we obtain happiness by living out the paradox Christ lays before us in Matthew 16:25: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”

A feeling of happiness may be the result of a life well-lived, but it can never be our goal. True happiness abounds when we understand that our lives are not our own and when we practice the spiritual disciplines that lead us closer to Christ—the source of our true happiness.

Maybe, then, we won’t need to spend $22 billion to lace our lavatories with gold.


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Copyright (c) 2006 Prison Fellowship

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