Happiness and Ethical Foundation

Happiness and Ethical Foundation

David W. Hegg

Increasingly a very simple question is becoming part of our daily conversation. “What’s happening to our country?” Every week there are news items that make us scratch our heads and wonder how come our national conscience seems to be on the fritz. We find ourselves surrounded by a growing number of people whose only purpose in life seems to be their own happiness, driven by selfishness and pride. Ever wonder what’s going on?

Fortunately for us, the psychological community has been watching this trend and has even coined a term for the kind of people we are becoming. For the first time in history a whole culture is being described as filled with what they term “the empty self.” 

Philip Cushman, in an article from the May, 1990 issue of American Psychologist, describes it this way: “…the empty self is filled up with consumer goods, calories, experiences, politicians, romantic partners, and empathetic therapists … (it) experiences a significant absence of community, tradition, and shared meaning … a lack of personal conviction and worth, and it embodies the absences as a chronic, undifferentiated emotional hunger.” The “empty self” is so dedicated to personal happiness that it becomes toxically self-centered, and misses it all together. 

Professor Martin Seligman is considered by most to be our nation’s foremost expert on happiness. For the past thirty years he has been involved in academic research projects on the motives and manner of those who strive to be happy. He has noted that those who live for happiness consistently make themselves and their own feelings paramount, turning away from the needs and benefit of others. The result? They become shriveled selves who are anything but happy. 

Professor Seligman’s research uncovered the distressing fact that, with the coming of age of the Baby Boomer generation, the number of people diagnosed with depression increased ten fold in America. He attributed this rise to the fact that Baby Boomers had stopped imitating their ancestors who had lived their lives, not for self, but for causes such as God, family, and country. 

Instead, Boomers turned their eyes inward, pursued their own happiness, and spent their energy and resources finding personal satisfaction. As J. P. Moreland has said “They lost any sense of giving themselves daily to the art of becoming a wise, virtuous person of character and living for a cause bigger than themselves.” The result was an increased sense of worthlessness and despair.

What can we learn from this? Just this. It is time to take reckoning of our lives, and what makes them worthwhile, filled with purpose and satisfaction. We would do well to remember our ancestors, and what they lived for. We celebrate them, not only because many of them died defending our freedom, but even more for how they lived. They understood that happiness cannot be manufactured. Rather, it is the by-product of living for something bigger than self. Happiness is the flower that blooms on the plant of commitment to a noble vision. It is the fruit that flows from a life intent first on becoming a person of virtue, and then determining to spend and be spent in service to others. 

All around we see those who have joined the ranks of the empty self. Perhaps you are reading this and sensing this describes you. And maybe you’ve been trying to fill your life with the stuff that actually increases your emptiness, loneliness, and private pain. Here’s the deal. Stop what you’re doing, and pursue virtue, nobility, righteousness, truth, and service. What have you go to lose but that gnawing sense of emptiness?