At the end of the go-go 1990s, a decade of strong economic growth and increased prosperity, psychology professor and Christian believer David Myers wrote a book entitled “The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty.”
Its premise was the weak link between material prosperity and personal happiness. In spite of our culture’s emphasis on increasing personal wealth, Myers wrote, “within affluent countries, where nearly everyone can afford life’s necessities, increasing affluence matters surprisingly little” to happiness.
That’s been the wisdom of the ages reflected in virtually all religious traditions. It’s certainly true in Christianity; Jesus continually warned that wealth or its pursuit can be an enslaving idol and reminded his followers continually that their wealth was not their own.
Myers’ book and other studies pointed out that this wisdom has in recent years been borne out by scientific study. Poor people – those who must struggle for food, shelter and the other basic necessities of life – are less happy than those of moderate means who have enough to provide themselves and their families with the essentials. After that, increasing income does not increase happiness and can be detrimental to it.
The paradox Myers pointed to was that, as a whole, the more prosperous America had gotten, the more anxious and discontented its people had become.
This only underscores the truth of Jesus’ admonitions that worrying about personal wealth is a primary distraction from the work of the Kingdom of God.
How are we to deal with this truth in a period of deep economic anxiety? It is small comfort to people who have lost their jobs or their life savings that being wealthy won’t make you any happier. For many people, it’s back to worrying about basic necessities.
But for the majority who can make provision for their basic needs, the current times offer an opportunity to reflect upon material desires versus material needs.
Maybe the economic uncertainty has caused us to cut back on certain luxuries that we had come to view as necessities. Maybe that can teach us more about what we really need and what we really can do without – and feel less encumbered as a result.
Maybe during this period we can come to more fully understand what we know intellectually but often have so much troubling dealing with at an emotional or psychological level – that acquiring things because others have them and we want ours is a never-ending cycle that almost certainly will elude satisfaction.
We know we can’t spend our way to happiness, and it’s a given that prudence is called for in uncertain times. Yet a competing message we hear these days is that until we start spending more – even on things we don’t need or particularly want – the economy will remain in the doldrums and unemployment will continue to rise.
Is there a new economic model that can better reconcile what is good for us personally and spiritually with conditions that keep people at work? It’s a challenge without easy answers, but one that people of faith must consider each day.
That challenge begins with the ancient wisdom, now proven by scientific research, that more stuff doesn’t equate to an abundant life.