The Real Reason We Are Unhappy

Who’s to blame?

A lot of people are listening to TED Talks these days. I think it is because they are supposed to be smart and scientific. They are mostly just secular and progressive. I was listening to one about how monogamy does not work anymore and how we should be “Monogam-ish”— that is, mostly monogamous. The first part of the talk was full of all kinds of pseudoscience, but the main idea was that marriage is a worse than fifty-fifty gamble and it definitely needs an adjustment if it will have the potential to make us happy. And the thing we need to adjust is probably the monogamy part.

You may or may not think that’s particularly controversial. For my purpose here, this is just one example of a much broader phenomenon. It is part of the general unhappiness with the things that are supposed to make us happy, including human institutions that have lasted tens of thousands of years. The secular and progressive way of dealing with such a phenomenon is to blame the institution — the thing that was supposed to make us happy. If we are not happy in our marriages, then the problem is marriage.

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The real source of our unhappiness

This is a profound break with the wisdom that human beings sought for thousands of years, and will hopefully be seen for the foolishness that it is sooner rather than later. The pain, brutality, and havoc it will leave in its wake in human lives will be incalculable, even if it is spoken by an attractive brunette in a sexy red dress. Human beings have always known why we are not happy; we have understood that the answer is us. And we have also understood that the problem in us was the same problem for everyone. We did not need as many institutions as there were people because we knew people were all basically the same.

The reason we are unhappy with marriage is because marriage is specifically designed to kill our selfishness and to exploit us in the service of others, namely our family. If having your selfishness killed and your lifeblood poured out for ungrateful offspring does not make you happy, then it is not going to make you happy.

The long way around

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As Christians, people committed to the idea that holiness should precede happiness, we expect that death comes before life and that we will feel terribly strangled before we breathe a freer air. Life comes through death, freedom through slavery, ease through discipline, and personal significance through interpersonal morality. Jesus always takes us the long way around, because it is holiness that most stably leads to both moral beauty and personal significance. That is, happiness not just for ourselves through narcissism, but for us and others through mutual service.

One of the greatest philosophical needs and psychological realizations of modern secular and progressive society is to realize that we have forgotten the wisdom of how to be happy. We have lost the spirituality of happiness in a secular amnesia, clouded by our obsession with individuality and our denial of our shared human nature. It leads to our own alienation, the growth of our narcissism, the shallowness of our character, the weakness of our resolve, and the consistent experience of never finding the stable and solid happiness that we seek.

Holiness and happiness

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It is not the things, the institutions, or the situations that cannot make us happy. It is we who cannot be made happy. It is not the milk that is spoiled, it is the child. It is not that it cannot be enjoyed, it is that he does not know how to take enjoyment, which is a moral and spiritual capacity won through a knowledge of the truth and the disciplines of holiness. The truly humble and holy person can only be unhappy through great exertion because they are so easily made happy by a breeze or a buttercup. But to the will turned in on itself, to the accusing mind of all the things that were supposed to make us happy, the wine of life tastes like gall because they have only grown accustomed to Pepsi.

It is only when in pursuit of holiness we recognize that we do not need customization, nor an exciting escapade, nor a different institution to be happy. We just need to become the sort of creature that metabolizes mirth from the grace hidden in every work and duty. Such a person will find neither marriage nor monogamy a lid upon their happiness. They will not even find marriage to be particularly hard. But even more, they will demand it because they will see the death of monogamy for what it is and marriage not as an institution that needs to be fixed but as one of the main institutions divinely designed to fix us.

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