Americans are easily the most economically prosperous people to ever walk the earth. Why do we seem so miserable? Angry? Dissatisfied? Full of grievance? We are living proof that money doesn’t buy happiness, but that never stops us from giving it our best shot.
Our national discontent shows up regularly at the turn of every new year. As one humorous meme-maker put it: “I can’t believe it’s been a whole year since I didn’t become a better person.” Since we never seem to measure up to our ideals, goals, and aspirations, we redouble our efforts and make lists to perform better and accomplish more—our “New Year’s Resolutions.”
It seems the American DNA itself—something intrinsic to our national character—is to be industrious, supremely busy, yet unsatisfied people. One hundred sixty years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed:
In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords; it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures […] The chief reason [is that they] are forever brooding over advantages they do not possess. It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.
Some diagnose this problem as one of misguided direction and misplaced efforts. That is, the problem is the object and purpose of our ambitions: the “American Dream.” We devote ourselves to the wrong things for the wrong purposes: our own personal peace, comfort, or affluence. What we need is to redirect our efforts to an altogether different goal—say, to formal ministry or lay-service to others.
I don’t for a moment deny that personal happiness and material wealth can be idols, and maybe some need to recalibrate their checkbooks and their motives. But I wonder if there is a deeper problem. What if the problem isn’t the object or purpose, but our efforts themselves? What if we don’t really understand the very nature of our work? You see, America has always been, to varying degrees, a “meritocracy.” What we get out of something is precisely commensurate with the effort we put into it. In fact, we tend to value things only to the extent that it is a result of our effort—we “earned” it. This locks us into a Karma-like perspective where everything is precisely calculated in a balance sheet of input and output, effort and compensation; the universe is a closed system of work and reward, and the only way forward is…more effort!
But what if the universe isn’t actually like that? What if it isn’t a cosmic ledger sheet? What if the basic reality is grace? Surplus? Super-abundance? Blessings that are unearned? We are too often like the Israelites, whom God warned in Deuteronomy 8:
You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.
We habitually think success and blessing is achieved by our efforts rather than received. Yes, our efforts are important; we reap the fruits of our labors. But that connection is itself a divine blessing, a gift. Only when we understand the gift (not “paycheck”) of grace will we truly know the concept of gratitude and all of its effects like satisfaction, joy, and happiness. We are ungrateful because, like the ancient Israelites, we forget the God who is the ultimate source of all blessing.
People often think that in Romans 1 the Apostle Paul diagnoses degenerate human culture primarily in terms of its sexual deviance. But actually he says, “they neither glorified him as God nor gave him thanks.” Thanklessness and ingratitude is the hallmark of a culture turned away from God, and a hallmark of a miserable people.
I recommend a different kind of New Year’s Resolution. Instead of a list of new works to perform, or new levels of dedication and ambition, how about this year a resolve to make a list of unearned things that you receive from God’s abundance with true gratitude and thanksgiving? Your family, children, material needs, deep friendships, fine meals, weekend trips, and, yes, even your paycheck?
We Americans have always been devoted to the pursuit of happiness, and if de Tocqueville is to be believed, we haven’t often achieved it. And that’s precisely what keeps it out of reach. For it cannot be achieved by effort; it can only be received by resting in the grace of God, from whom all blessings flow.
Brian G. Mattson is a theologian, writer, and musician. He serves as the Senior Scholar of Public Theology with the Center For Cultural Leadership. Find him online at www.drbrianmattson.com
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