Our Never-Ending Pursuit of Happiness

Last week there was an article in The New York Times about Yale and a psychology course that has become the most popular class ever offered. Nearly one-fourth of Yale undergraduates are enrolled in the class. The course tries to teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life. According to Laurie Santos, the professor who teaches the course, “there is a serious mental health crisis among the students.” A 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that more than half of undergraduates sought mental health care from the university during their time of enrollment.

Several years ago, the cover story of the Harvard student newspaper The Crimson revealed the rampant incidence of student depression. Harvard has a student enrollment of 6,700 students. The newspaper reported that 80% of the student body had experienced depression at least once during the school year. Almost half (47%) of the student body found themselves depressed to the point of having a hard time functioning, and 10%, 650 students, had strongly considered committing suicide.

This past June I wrote a blog titled Depression: The World’s Most Widespread Illness. It was based on the World Health Organization’s announcement that depression has become the most widespread illness in the world, and the numbers are rising. This seems to be a particular problem with young people.

Armand Nicholi is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He has taught courses at the undergraduate level at Harvard as well as Harvard Medical School for thirty-five years.

In his book, The Question of God, Nicholi contends that one of the major factors that causes depression is a person’s worldview. He found that students who have a secular worldview seem to struggle more with depression and do not respond very quickly to treatment. Their struggle is a result of their feelings of cosmic insignificance. For so many of them, life seems pointless.

Nicholi did a good bit of research on what happened to students at Harvard when they converted to Christianity, and how they experienced a dramatic change in their view of life and the world. This is what he observed:

Before their conversion experience, they referred often to an emptiness and despondency, sometimes calling it existential despair. This depressive mood was partly related to a gap they felt between their social conscience on the one hand and their personal morality – how they actually lived – on the other. They appeared to struggle with the passage of time, with aging and death, as paradoxical as this may seem in this age group. They spoke despairingly of feeling old, of having accomplished little in their lives, and, as students, living a parasitical existence. Yet after their conversion, they spoke of experiencing a sense of forgiveness that apparently helped them become less intolerant of themselves, helped them bridge the gap between what they felt they were and what they thought they ought to be, and provided resources outside themselves that made the future bridging of this gap less hopeless.

Although their spiritual experience did not free them from alterations in mood, they spoke of a “sense of joy” not previously known and a marked decrease in the feeling of utter hopelessness and despair that they had struggled with previously.

Finally, they spoke of spiritual resources that give strength and renewed hope and that foster a more open, more tolerant, and more loving spirit toward others. They referred frequently to the theological concepts of redemption and forgiveness as being instrumental in reducing their self-hatred.

Nicholi has studied and written extensively on the life of C.S. Lewis. He noted that after C.S. Lewis’ conversion, you could not help but notice how his change in worldview profoundly impacted his capacity to experience happiness. Lewis recognized quite clearly that all the pessimism and gloom he experienced in his life was closely related to his atheism. His conversion experience transformed his pessimism, gloom, and despair to joy and a freedom from the burden of a driving ambition and led to many satisfying relationships.

I do not think we realize how much our worldview impacts our sense of purpose or our capacity to experience happiness. More importantly, I do not think we realize that our worldview can be rooted in what is true or it can be rooted in falsehood. If it is rooted in falsehood, we will wander through life in the darkness, never understanding why we can’t find happiness. On the other hand, when our lives and worldviews are aligned with what is true, it increases our ability to experience true happiness.

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