I have quoted New York Times columnist David Brooks more than a few times on this blog site. I find Brooks to be one of the most insightful and helpful syndicated writers today. On March 29 he wrote a column titled: “The Sandra Bullock Trade.” He wrote that in the month of March two things happened to Sandra. First, she won an Academy Award for best actress in 2009 for her role in The Blind Side. Shortly after winning her award she learned that her husband was “an adulterous jerk.” Brooks asks: “Would you exchange a tremendous professional triumph for a severe personal blow?”
On the side of the Academy Award triumph Brooks notes that major research shows that those who win the award live four years longer than those who are nominated and never win. But, as Brooks notes, marital happiness is far more valuable than any recognitions or awards. You don’t even need to think about this for three seconds.
But, Brooks shows, this is not just a good point for a sermon. Actual research now shows that there is little correlation between income, after a certain point, and real happiness. We are a much richer nation than we were fifty years ago but there is no evidence of a rise in real happiness. And we all know that winning the lottery doesn’t produce any real gain. In fact, the results are inevitably the opposite in the case of the lottery winners. While the relationship between money, at least having enough of it, and personal happiness has some room for debate and disparity, the relationship between personal relationships and happiness is not even debatable. There is direct a correlation between activities like sex, socializing and having dinner with others. I personally find it interesting, since I know so many men and women who commute into Chicago five days a week. The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting. And one study says that joining a group that meets at least once a month produces the same happiness as doubling your income. Another says being married produces a psychic gain equal to more than $100,000. Money truly can’t buy happiness and jobs and commuting can’t either.
Brooks concluded: “The overall impression from this research is that economic and professional success exists on the surface of life, and that they emerge out of interpersonal relationships which are deeper and more important.” The second impression we gain from this research on happiness is that “most of us pay attention to the wrong things.” This is the part that really got my attention.
Brooks thinks most schools and colleges spend too much time preparing students for careers and not enough preparing them to make social decisions. Modern societies have developed huge institutions around things that are easy to count, not around things that matter the most. “They have an affinity for material concerns and a primordial fear of moral and social ones.” Brooks concludes his op-ed piece by saying: “Governments keep initiating policies that they think will produce prosperity, only to get sacked, time and again, from their spiritual blind side.”
I can’t help but ask church leaders this question: Are you creating and operating programs that you think will actually help people have better lives when the reality is otherwise? Are you busy counting this and that and missing the way people really improve their lives, both socially and spiritually? Maybe a great deal of what you offer people is not nearly as important as you think. Just maybe, what people want is meaningful relationships built upon spending quality time with warm, caring and spiritually responsive people. Maybe your church is “getting sacked, from the spiritual blind side.” And maybe you need to cut back on all the expensive and time-consuming programs and increase relational involvement with people. Sounds almost like what the New Testament says about the kingdom of God come to think of it.