tumblr_nx2mf1Pdvl1uh630po1_1280

Here’s a timely one. Last week a major new study of happiness hit the web, courtesy of the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science. The title of the report itself says it all, “More Happiness for Young People and Less for Mature Adults: Time-Period Differences in Subjective Wellbeing in the United States, 1972-2014”.

If you’ll recall, last year The Atlantic ran a major cover story on “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis”,  theorizing that motorcycle purchases and Tuscan retreats coincide with the bottom point of the “U-Curve of Happiness”, AKA the phenomenon reported across countries, cultures and even species(!) of self-reported wellbeing dipping significantly in one’s 40s, rising in one’s 50s and 60s, and often peaking during one’s 70s. That article explained the Curve primarily in terms of expectations, that one’s 40s is the time when the “unwinnable status competition” of adult life is at its peak and our youthful expectations finally bite the dust. Once broken of our entitlements, we are more apt to experience the next stage of life in terms of what it actually is (what we’ve been given) rather than what it was supposed to be. As gratitude increases, so does wellbeing.

Makes sense, right? Well, the new research suggests that the U-Curve of Happiness may be flattening. The Science of Us summarizes thusly:

happy_1874914cWhile previous research had identified an upward trend in life satisfaction across the years — that is, as people get older, they tend to get happier — this new report found that by the 2010s, this had reversed. Teens and twentysomethings are happier than they used to be, but people 30 years old and older are less satisfied with their lives than previous generations. And this was no small survey of undergrads, as social psychology studies often are. These researchers — led by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University — analyzed data from some substantial national surveys, including a total of 1.27 million teenagers and more than 50,000 adults (ages 18 to 96).

Ruh roh. When asked to theorize about the cause(s), the authors of the study cited a familiar culprit:

The researchers can only speculate about why getting older is less fun than ever, but it seems the downturn in happiness among today’s thirtysomethings is the lasting effect of an overly optimistic youth, Twenge said. “This is something I’ve thought about for a while,” she told Science of Us. It’s the natural, if unintended, backfiring of a childhood filled with messages like, You can be anything you want to be! 

Soaring expectations, if left unmet, can lead to crushing disappointment; this is the kind of common-sense statement that happens to also be backed up by a raft of psychological research…

Likewise, there is some empirical evidence that people turning 30 in the 2010s did indeed have higher expectations for their lives when they were teenagers as compared to teenagers in generations past. Twenge nods to a large national survey of high-school seniors that she and her colleagues looked at when putting together their research, one that asked the teenagers what they expected their adult lives to look like. “Expectations in those areas have grown by a lot — in some case, doubled — since the ’70s,” she said. For example, in the 1970s, less than half of high-school students surveyed expected to be in a managerial position by the time they turned 30; today, 64 percent of high schoolers assume they’ll be the boss by their 30s.

Escalating self-expectation, in other words, is really just a euphemism for a runaway optimism–about ourselves and the world around us–that is reaching near pathological heights.

As much as we’ve done to make the whole low anthropology thing a refrain (maybe too much), if these numbers are correct, the cultural current has never run so strongly in the opposite direction. Again, the point in trumpeting human limitation and ‘original sin’ is not to fetishize negativity or pile on the millennials (even more!) so much as safeguard wellbeing and the possibility of gratitude, to say nothing of truth. Thanksgiving is next week, after all.

No wonder EKR chose to open up our Law and Gospel book with a riff on that very subject:

Today, more than ever, we believe in our own inherent giddy-up. A recent poll showed that around 96% of people within the millennial generation are sure that they will “get where they want to be in life.” 1950, a similar poll showed that only 12% of the same age group agreed. More than churchy judgmentalism, the God of Christianity—and his obstinate stance on human sin and helplessness—is an offense to the zeitgeist of humanist progress and potential.

Modern ears–my own included–tend to hear (and dismiss) Christian teaching about sin as defeating and even shame-inducing. We opt instead for empowering slogans like the one I saw in a store window recently, which said simply, “You are magnificent!” “Be the hero of your own story” and so forth. Never mind that this sort of puffery rings false, even to children, it turns out that such overcompensation vis-a-vis human nature is straight-up harmful. St. Augustine termed it “cruel optimism”, and it is everywhere. Preaching on Ash Wednesday, Nadia Bolz Weber explained the cruelty this way:

There’s no shame in the truth that our lives on earth will all end and that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. It’s not depressing. What’s depressing is the desperation of trying to pretend otherwise. What’s depressing is to insist that I can free myself I just haven’t managed to pull it off yet.

When we embrace an inflated anthropology, we set ourselves up for disappointment and confusion, rather than wonder or compassion. For example, a vaunted view of ourselves all but dictates how we will respond to the horrific events that transpired in Paris last week. Empathy is too frightening for what it might say about us, and so we demonize. We classify the perpetrators as wholly other–bad as opposed to good, savage as opposed to enlightened, victimizers as opposed to victimized–which only furthers the dehumanization that makes such acts possible in the first place. Perhaps that’s too close to the bone, though.

Talk to someone who works as a therapist, or in pastoral ministry, and they will tell you some form of the following: When people come to them to confess something awful they’ve done (or left undone), that person almost always feel like they are the only one capable of such wrong. How could I have done this terrible thing, they ask. What is wrong with me? This is why a good therapist will spend time normalizing wrong behavior – not justifying, mind you – but normalizing. Sadly, this makes little sense in a culture where normal/natural, by default, equals good.

To paraphrase Jonathan Haidt, an inflated anthropology blinds and binds. It binds us, paradoxically, to self-loathing and isolation, and it blinds us to that for which we might be grateful.

A low anthropology, on the other hand, recasts the question of how God could let something happen like what happened in France. Given what all of us are capable of, it suggests that it could be evidence of God’s mercy that such things do not happen more often. That may be of little consolation to the grieving families, but I dare say it cracks the door open to healing, or you might say, the one who heals. Whose mercy, contra every expectation, extends to those curved against their own wellbeing–and his as well.

I was privileged to hear a sermon this past weekend that dealt far more eloquently with this dynamic. The preacher closed with a tidbit from an Ernest Hemingway short story–the same one Ethan mentioned in the opener for the Relationships issue. Here goes:

You may have heard of the famous scene in the Hemingway short story called “The Capital of the World.” The main character is named Paco (a typical name in Spain). He has falling out with his father and runs away from home. The father, determined to find his son and bring him back home, searches fruitlessly all over Madrid. He eventually becomes desperate and decides to put a short ad in the paper, which reads: “PACO, MEET ME AT THE HOTEL MONTANA. NOON TUESDAY. ALL IS FORGIVEN. PAPA.”

When Paco’s father arrives at the hotel plaza at noon on Tuesday, he cannot believe his eyes. A squadron of police officers has been dispatched there to control a crowd of 800 young men, all named Paco, all of them looking to reconcile with their father. All 800 of them needed to hear, longed to hear “ALL IS FORGIVEN.” Amen.