Happiness and Evangelization

I recently finished reading psychologist Dan Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness, an examination of how the human brain attempts to make decisions about what will make us happy — decisions that, if studies are to be believed, we don’t make very well.

Gilbert’s book is summarized in this 2008 TED talk (the whole talk is about 24 minutes long and is well worth watching on its own merits):

Gilbert’s explanation vis a vis how we make decisions about happiness over time got me thinking about the aims of evangelization. Given that comparisons over time are extraordinarily difficult to make and that, all things being equal, it takes a tremendous payoff to delay gratification, is it possible that the extension of the human lifespan makes arguments for religious belief less convincing?

The stereotypical Christian argument is: “Have faith in Christ and his saving work, turn away from sin, and you will be rewarded with heaven.” Putting aside whether this is an accurate representation of the Gospel, in Gilbert’s terms we are asking people to delay today’s gratification (at least as it pertains to immoral acts) in favor of a reward in the afterlife.

This may have been a compelling argument when the average lifespan of a citizen of colonial Virginia was around 25 years. Death was imminent. The frame of reference for questions of happiness were much more immediate. As a result, it would have been easier to put off gratifying (but possibly immoral) behavior in favor of a “heavenly reward” because that   reward didn’t seem too far off.

But today the average American can expect to live well into his 70s. Most people simply don’t think in that kind of time frame. I can hardly put together a budget for the next month, let alone think about the state of my eternal soul in 40 years. Couple that with a consumer culture that prizes personal autonomy and immediate gratification and the Gospel seems much less compelling. Again, in Gilberts terms, the payoff for waiting simply doesn’t compute for the average person.

So how do we evangelize in such a situation? We know that, in the long run, final happiness is to be found only in God. But when people today enjoy more daily comfort, longer and safer lives, and greater individual autonomy that in any other period of history, how do we convey that fact in a compelling and credible manner?

“I just don’t want to be limited by anything.”

This may well be the mantra of our age. It describes our attitude towards everything from food to television, children to transportation. (In fact, the direct quote above came from a recent episode of This Week in Tech during a conversation about bandwidth caps.) It is a message reinforced by the television we watch, the magazines we read and the ads that appear in both: get more, eat more, exercise more, have more fun. More. More.

What this attitude fails to realize, of course, is that we are finite beings. Despite what we are told in ads, we cannot “have it all” — and even if we could, how would we find the time or energy to enjoy it all? Imagine how difficult it would be to keep track of it. (To say nothing about the taxes!)

We have perverted free will — and our language to describe it — to such an extent that we put bandwidth caps and children in the same category as obstacles to our freedom. This is a gross failure to make some fundamental distinctions about authentic happiness and freedom, and one need only look at our culture to see that we are the poorer for it.