By L. Alfred James
Starting in 1988, with a study by Martin Seligman, the academic world discovered something very disturbing about American culture. A seismic shift took place in the generations following the Silent Generation (1928-1945). The shift began with the next generation, the Baby Boomers (1946-1964):
The Baby Boomer generation has ten times the number of people suffering from depression as any of the generations that preceded it.
That is, in the span of one generation the number of people suffering depression did not just double, or triple, or quadruple. It increased ten times as much. And this trend of increasing depression has continued with Generation X and Generation Y.
This prompted some serious investigation. If any condition increases this much in the span of one generation, we are safe to say an epidemic has occurred. The question is, why? Why are Baby Boomers, on average, far less happy and far more commonly struggling with depression than those who came before?
Following Martin Seligman and J.P. Moreland, I’d like to suggest that this massive shift resulted from the dramatic increase in the belief that each person must find their own meaning in life for themselves.
With the Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation the majority of people believed you should give your life to something bigger than yourself: God, country, or family, or all three. You found contentment and happiness by being part of something bigger than yourself. But with the Baby Boomers that changed. No longer could we be confident that God existed, or that America was actually a good country (and patriotism a good thing), or that we should put our family’s interests ahead of our own.
Instead of living for something bigger than ourselves, we started to just live for ourselves, for our own success, our own fame, our own gratification, our own pleasure. We thought that the pursuit of pleasure was the secret of happiness. But three generations of clinical data indicates that it isn’t working. The epidemic of depression is only getting worse. Thus, if this were a clinical trial we would have to conclude that telling people to “find their own meaning” is an absolute failure.
The Bible’s Solution
The apostle Peter once wrote a letter to Christians who were suffering extreme persecution. Shortly into that letter he said,
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead . . . 6 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. . . 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:3)
Notice, even though they were suffering “grief in all kinds of trials,” they were filled with “an inexpressible and glorious joy.” How is that possible? It is possible because happiness (or, if you prefer to use the word “joy”) does not come from having pleasure and comfort. It comes from having a deep sense of meaning and purpose.
This is confirmed by what we see in the lives of many people who serve God wholeheartedly. Even though their circumstances are hard they have abiding happiness because they have a deep sense of meaning and purpose. Consider the life of Mother Teresa and her tireless work to help those in need. Her circumstances were extremely uncomfortable: living in conditions that are equal to a slum, having very little time for rest, and owning practically nothing. Yet she would describe her life as being filled with joy.1
Or consider the lives of missionaries like David Livingstone, Hudson Taylor, or Samuel Zwemer. They often went weeks without a decent meal, constantly experienced threats to their lives, and endured severe illnesses. Yet they all speak of “joy, joy, joy.”2 Or consider Thomas Schmidt’s encounter with a woman named Mabel. She was blind, nearly deaf, stricken with cancer, bound to a wheelchair, suffered extreme facial deformities, and drooled constantly. And she had been in that condition for twenty-five years! Yet, she was characterized by a shocking contentment and concern for others. Indeed, she was very thankful to God for being “awfully good” to her. Schmidt came away from this encounter a changed man. He said,
This is not fiction. Incredible as it may seem, a human being really lived like this. I know. I knew her. How could she do it? Seconds ticked and minutes crawled, and so did days and weeks and months and years of pain without human company and without an explanation of why it was all happening – and she lay there and sang hymns. How could she do it? (Thomas Schmidt, A Scandalous Beauty)3
The lives of those who have found deep happiness in God demonstrates once and for all that happiness does not come from having pleasure, and it certainly doesn’t come from being comfortable. It comes from knowing that our lives have a deep, important, and meaning-filled purpose. Nietzsche once said, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” If you know why you are living it doesn’t matter how you are living.
Does Either Atheism Or Agnosticism Provide A Foundation For A Meaningful Life?
So, here is an important question: Can a secular worldview provide you with a strong sense of meaning? If there is no God, can life really be meaningful? No. Absolutely not. If there is no God, you have to work very hard at ignoring the fact that your life is ultimately meaningless. This was perfectly enunciated by William Lane Craig:
Mankind is a doomed race in a dying universe. Because the human race will eventually cease to exist, it makes no ultimate difference whether it ever did exist. Mankind is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitoes or a barnyard of pigs, for their end is all the same. The same blind cosmic process that coughed them up in the first place will eventually swallow them all again. And the same is true of each individual person. The contributions of the scientist to the advance of human knowledge, the researches of the doctor to alleviate pain and suffering, the efforts of the diplomat to secure peace in the world, the sacrifices of good people everywhere to better the lot of the human race—all these come to nothing. In the end they don’t make one bit of difference, not one bit. Each person’s life is therefore without ultimate significance. And because our lives are ultimately meaningless, the activities we fill our lives with are also meaningless. The long hours spent in study at the university; our jobs, our interests, our friendships—all these are, in the final analysis, utterly meaningless. (William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith)
Can a Christian worldview provide you with a strong sense of meaning? Yes, absolutely. All of life is teeming over with meaning. This has been aptly described by C.S. Lewis:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)
So, when you are trying to decide what you believe, don’t forget which worldviews logically entail that life is meaningless and which entail that life is bursting with meaning… because happiness does not come from pleasure. It comes from meaning.
3. Schmidt’s story has been retold by John Ortberg and many others. It can be found at https://paulvanderklay.me/2009/10/03/mabel/