David Myers, John Dirk Werkman Professor of Psychology at Hope College in Michigan, is a prolific and respected author. His psychology textbooks are used at about 1,000 colleges and universities, while his other writings have explored the psychology of religion, sexual orientation, terrorism fears, ESP, and his own battle with hearing loss. His most recent book is The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty (Yale University Press), which was recently excerpted in Christianity Today. Yale University Press will publish his next book, Intuition: Its Powers and Perils, in September.
What is the American Paradox?
On the one hand, we've been soaring materially. Our civil rights have been expanding. We've got technology galore, and we love it all. These are the best of times. At the same time, we've got unprecedented numbers of children having children. Our teens have become more suicidal and violent. We've become more demoralized and depression-prone as adults. We live in an era that can be described as one of plenty, but also spiritual hunger. And that's the paradox. Expanding wealth and sinking spirits.
What do you mean when you use the term social recession?
From 1960 to the early 1990s we've seen several trends, including a doubling of the divorce rate, a tripling of the teen suicide rate, a quadrupling of the rate of reported violence, a quintupling of the prison population in the United States, and a sextupling in the percentage of babies born to unmarried parents. Everybody, whether you're Planned Parenthood or Focus on the Family, agrees this has not been for the betterment of children. Fortunately, some of these trends, such as juvenile violence, for example, and teen suicide have begun to abate as the culture awakens to what's been happening and as we begin to reverse some of these trends. But we're still a long ways from the communal spirit and the health that marked family life back in 1960.
What happened that triggered this radical individualism?
Advancing materialism. A capitalist free enterprise economic system is conducive to individualism. We're a country that was founded out of respect for individual rights and liberties, and that's something that I celebrate. The concern, however, is that we've gotten out of balance. Individual liberties are now taking priority over communal responsibilities. But there has been an increase in what's been called "communitarian" thinking in the last half a dozen years, and now we've agreed that maybe it's okay to have restraints on smoking or other restrictions on personal liberties in the interests of the group as a whole.
But when it gets to policy approaches to solving those problems, we still end up getting locked into very different approaches, don't we?
Especially on some issues where the culture war still is being fought, like abortion, gay rights, and tax policies. But there are other issues where, it seems to me, there's an emerging near consensus, such as the mass media's toxic effects on youth culture or the need for rebuilding character education in American schools.
How is it that people still believe money could make them happier?
If you ask people would money make you happier, they deny it. And yet, this last fall, 73 percent of entering American collegiates—that's double the percentage nearly of 30 years ago—said it was very important, or essential, that they be very well off financially. That was the number one ranked goal among 19 listed, outranking helping others in difficulty, raising a family, becoming an expert in one's profession. Those are important things, too. But being very well off financially, in their minds, defines the good life. It's the American Dream.
But the interesting juxtaposition you have made in The American Paradox is that we know that money does not, in fact, make you happier. And we know that there is a spiritual poverty, as reflected in the unraveling of the social fabric, that has accompanied this great lust and pursuit of wealth.
Yes. We've got bigger houses and more broken homes. We've got higher income and lower morale. Let me give you a simple statistic—actually two of them juxtaposed. The real inflation-adjusted per-person income in the United States has more than doubled from about $8,000 back in 1960 to more than $20,000 today. At the same time, the percent of Americans who say they're very happy has slightly declined over that same time period, while the percent who are experiencing significant depression and are at risk for suicide has increased.
So the answer to the question Are rich Americans happier? is what?
Only very slightly so. Not nearly as much as what they think. And, indeed, people who come into great wealth by winning, say, the state lottery, at first are euphoric when they obtain that wealth. But soon they adapt. And over time their emotions return to the mix of emotions that marked their lives before the great, good thing.
At the other extreme are people who experience tragedy. Initially, these are devastating experiences. But even after having a significant disability, people cope amazingly well. They adapt to changing objective circumstance. That actually relates to my own loss of hearing that I write about in another book, A Quiet World. It gives me hope. Because if I become deaf, as was my mother, by golly, I will cope. I will adjust to this.
Why is community so important to this happiness?
Social psychologists these days are talking about our deep need to belong. Our ancestors grew up in small social groups. They were people who depended on one another, and those who did so were more likely to survive, contribute their genes to posterity, and to us. And so we, too, today have a deep need to connect. And people who have close, intimate, supportive friendships, or who are involved in marriage are more likely to say that they are very happy. Probably the single best predictor of whether somebody in America says they're very happy is, very simply, whether they're married. It's an extraordinarily important predictor of personal well being, and that's why I think there's good reason to care about the health of close relationships and even the health of community.
What role can the faith community play in the restoration of a socially vibrant culture?
There are 350,000 local faith communities in the United States, each of which is a support network and a care center for those who are actively engaged with it. And those who are actively engaged with faith communities have been found to be much less likely to engage in juvenile delinquency, to abuse drugs and alcohol, and to commit crime, for example. In census tracts where churchgoing is high, crime rates tend to be low. People of faith are, in Gallup surveys, considerably more likely to be generous both with their money and their time, as they volunteer time to community agencies. Even Voltaire, who was a thoroughgoing skeptic, once said, I don't believe in essence but, "I want my attorney, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God [because] then I shall be robbed and cuckolded less often." I don't think God exists, but I want everybody around me to believe in God.
There's an attitude about religion in America today that we can't live with it, but we can't live without it.
Yes. But the percentage of Americans who feel a need to experience spiritual growth in some form was rising rather dramatically during the 1990s in a couple of Gallup surveys, and we have pretty good evidence that an active religious faith, participation in a faith community with all its support and hope and meaning that rides along with that, is associated with personal well-being, and even with physical health. People who never attend church in the United States, 26 percent of them say they are very happy, as compared to 47 percent of those who attend church, synagogue, or mosque several times weekly.
Copyright © 2002 Dick Staub
Visit DickStaub.com for audio and video of his radio program (4-7 p.m. PST), media reviews, and on news "where belief meets real life." The full text of this interview will be for sale on the website soon.
Earlier Dick Staub Interviews include:
Richard Lewis | The comedian, actor, and author talks about his humor, addiction, and spiritual journey. (June 11, 2002)
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