“Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places”* is one of those golden oldie country music tunes that gently rip away the facades we all wear at least sometimes and gets at the heart of what makes folks happy or sad with themselves and their lives.
The first verse is an especially poignant description of a process many of us know all too well:
“I’ve spent a lifetime looking for you
Single bars and good time lovers, never true
Playing a fools game, hoping to win
Telling those sweet lies and losing again.”
The song was talking about the age-old quest to find enduring happiness in romantic love and his realization why he had wasted all those years:
“I was looking for love in all the wrong places
Looking for love in too many faces
Searching your eyes, looking for traces
Of what… I’m dreaming of…”
Love and happiness are virtually synonyms, so people who claim to be happy have something to say to those who aren’t about where to look for genuine joy and contentment. So who are the happiest people among us? The answer is provided by data-driven secular social science and it likely will shock a lot of folks.
Fully 86 percent of those interviewed for the Pew Research Center’s “Religion in Everyday Life” survey in 2014 who described themselves as highly religious reported being either “very happy” or “pretty happy.”
At first glance, Pew found virtually no difference between the highly religious respondents and those who self-identified as either atheists or agnostics, with 87 percent the latter saying they were either very happy or pretty happy.
But look closer and one category stands out: Fully 40 percent of the highly religious said they were very happy but only 26 percent of the atheist/agnostic respondents did so. That’s a 14 point difference and it raises some fascinating questions, starting with why are those in one group so markedly happier with their lives than those in the other group?
Could it be that extrinsic economic or social factors shaped these results? Not according to Pew, which said that “even after controlling for differences such as income and marital status, Christians remain more satisfied with their family lives than those who are religiously unaffiliated.”
The answer appears to be that highly religious individuals tend to define happiness differently from others. Some years ago, psychologist Martin Seligman reported Baby Boomers displayed 10 times more depression than all previous generations, which he attributed to obsessive concerns with their personal feelings. (Full disclosure: I’m at the older end of the Boomers. But I’m not depressed.)
Biola University Professor Sean McDowell expands on Seligman’s observation, explaining that “the paradox of happiness is that if we seek it, we won’t find it. True happiness comes when we stop focusing on our own feelings, and lovingly seek the best for others.”
McDowell continues: “This is (partly) why Jesus said, ‘But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.’ Seek yourself first, and your life will be empty. Seek God first, and you will have a meaningful life filled with genuine happiness—whether you feel good or not.”
The same principle is well understood in AA where participants are encouraged whenever they are down or feeling unable to deal with their drinking or other problems “to help another drunk” because doing so gets your mind off yourself and moves you toward a focus on others.
Not coincidentally, AA grew out of the Oxford Group, a hugely significant group of Christians from America and Great Britain during the years between the two world wars.
Christian philosopher William Lane Craig describes the answer from the perspective of the atheist/agnostic who has sufficient intellectual honesty to grasp the ultimate implications of his or her position:
If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.
In other words, the journey to genuine happiness that transcends time and circumstance begins with God. Or as Jesus put it at Matthew 7:7: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.” Just remember, His answers often aren’t what we expect.
* The song was written by school teachers Wanda Mallette and Patti Ryan, with subsequent editing by Bob Morrison, according to Songfacts.
Mark Tapscott is executive editor and chief of the investigative group for the Daily Caller News Foundation.