Categories: Faith

The scientific case for God as the answer to our ‘unhappiness syndrome’

According to a recent longitudinal Gallup poll, unhappiness has increased significantly and continuously on a global level. The 2022 study reported that “people feel more anger, sadness, pain, worry, and stress than ever before” and a doubling in the rates of major depressive disorder in young people over a 10-year period (from 8.1% in 2009 to 15.8% in 2019). What can explain this disturbing shift?

I would submit that the answer to this question lies in philosophical analysis going back to Aristotle, theological analysis going back to St. Augustine, and psychological analysis initiated by Abraham Maslow. On the question of happiness, I propose building on two key insights from Aristotle:

  1. That happiness is the one thing you can choose for itself; everything else is chosen for the sake of happiness. Therefore, the way we define happiness will affect just about every decision we make in life. Nothing could be more important.
  2. That there are levels of happiness in which the higher levels are pervasive, enduring, and deep, while the lower levels are ego-centered, short-lived, and superficial. The higher levels of happiness bring about greater and more enduring happiness than the lower ones. And if we live solely for the lower ones, we will likely find ourselves feeling empty, alienated, unfulfilled, depressed, anxious, and sometimes despairing.

So, what are these four levels of happiness? The lowest one (Level 1) is the fulfillment of material-pleasure desires, such as a good wine, a nice home, material abundance, and sensual fulfillment. Though it is immediately gratifying, superficially appealing, and pleasure-producing, it does not go far beyond the self, last long, or make a quality contribution.

The second level — ego-comparative happiness — seeks self-gratification and comparative advantage. It engenders the questions: Who’s achieving more, and who, less? Who’s more intelligent or less intelligent? Who’s got more power, and who, less? Who’s more popular, and who, less? Who’s more beautiful?

The more one enjoys comparative advantage in these areas, the greater one’s ego-satisfaction (Level 2 happiness). Though ego-satisfaction can be quite intense, when it becomes an end in itself — the only thing that will satisfy us — it leads to a host of negative emotional and relational states, bringing with it high levels of depression and anxiety.

A religious sister shares a laugh with a girl at the Sorrowful Mother Retirement Home in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Nov. 22, 2011. (CNS/Jeannette Merten, The Compass)

Though Level 1 and Level 2 can produce intense satisfaction, an exaggerated emphasis on them can produce profound unhappiness. This exaggerated emphasis lies at the heart of the significant increase in global unhappiness described above — particularly that of young people.

Since the publication of Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism” (W. W. Norton & Company, $25.20), many studies show conclusively that narcissistic individuals cause misery for others and themselves.

The choice to live for ego-comparative advantage, admiration, dominion over others, and feelings of superiority, lead to marked increases in jealousy, inferiority, fear of loss of esteem, fear of failure, self-pity, ego-rage, ego-blame, contempt, loneliness, emptiness, and the depression and anxiety coming from these negative emotional states. 

Nevertheless, today’s culture (especially through mass media) focuses almost exclusively on this view of happiness and purpose in life. Today, 70% of our culture — particularly the young — embrace this view (both implicitly and explicitly). No wonder the rates of depression, anxiety, homicides, and suicides among the young are more than doubling.

The good news is this profound unhappiness can be overcome, and I believe the key lies in emphasis on Level 3 (contributive) and Level 4 (transcendent/religious) happiness. 

Let’s start with Level 3. We not only have a desire to enhance our own ego-world (Level 2), but also to make a positive difference to the world around us. Most people have a desire and need to make a positive difference to family, friends, community, workplace, church, culture, society, and even the kingdom of God. 

When we follow through on these desires, we not only draw closer to those to whom we contribute, but also receive a boost in our self-worth and purpose in life. If we have faith, we also draw closer to God. This may explain why studies show that contributive, service-oriented people are happier, more fulfilled, and secure in their identity and lives (NIH 2013). 

Is Level 3 enough? Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, much of the philosophical, theological, and psychological community has answered no. A recent study published by the American Psychiatric Association and many other studies, show that nonreligiously affiliated people, when compared to religiously affiliated people, experience much higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, familial tensions, anti-social aggressivity, suicidal contemplation, and suicides.

Why would this be? St. Augustine gives us a clue when he says, “For Thou hast made us for Thy self, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” (Confessions Bk. 1, Ch. 1). 

But, has God really made us? The great philosopher and theologian of religious experience Rudolf Otto argued that every human being has an irreducible interior experience of a sacred-spiritual-transcendent reality that is part of our pre-reflective consciousness, or most innate awareness of ourselves. 

A woman prays during Eucharistic adoration at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers, New York, May 23. (OSV News/Gregory A. Shemitz)

He calls it “the numinous experience” — a sense of a mysterious, fascinating, overwhelming yet inviting, spiritually energizing “wholly Other.” This seemingly universal experience would help explain why 84% of the world today practices some form of religion (Pew Global Religious Landscape 2012). 

If Otto’s studies of the numinous experience are correct, then we are not the origin of our faith and sense of the sacred. God is. 

If so, then it should not surprise us that ignoring the call of the sacred would leave us radically incomplete and unfulfilled in dignity, identity, purpose, and destiny, which in turn, would lead to increased depression, anxiety, substance abuse, familial tensions, suicidal contemplation, and suicides. Without God, we cannot be ourselves — without faith, we are a mere shadow of what we were intended to be. Faith significantly enhances our happiness.

Many of us can’t leap to faith simply because it will make us happier. We want some evidence that a sacred-transcendent reality (i.e., God) really exists and is interested in us and our choices. There is considerable scientific and rational evidence for God (a Creator/higher transcendent power) and life after death from things like peer-reviewed medical studies of near-death experiences, terminal lucidity, and intelligence in hydrocephalic patients. There’s also evidence from contemporary science (particularly cosmology) for a beginning (an implied creation) of physical reality. 

Interestingly, most scientists are in agreement with the existence of God and life after death. According to the last Pew survey, 51% of scientists overall and 66% of young scientists believe in God or a higher transcendent power. Additionally, according to the last survey of the Journal of Religion and Health, 76% of physicians believe in God or a higher transcendent power — and according to HCD Research and the Finkelstein Institute, 73% of physicians believe in the reality of miracles (naturalistically and scientifically inexplicable phenomena). 

Will simple belief in God bring happiness, fulfillment, and high purpose in life? Though it does get us on our way, it is not enough. 

The above studies indicate that religious affiliation and practice are what really bring our happiness to its highest, most fulfilling level. Believers who participate in religious community and prayer and try to grow closer to God spiritually and morally, not only find themselves happy and fulfilled, but also caught up in the loving power of Providence drawing them upward toward their true eternal purpose and dignity. 

As Jesus himself asserted: “I tell you all these things that my joy may be yours, and your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).

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Father Robert Spitzer, SJ

Father Robert Spitzer, SJ, is the president of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith. This essay is adapted from the author’s new book “The Four Levels of Happiness: Your Path to Personal Flourishing” (Sophia Institute Press, $21.95).

Tags: Happiness