We are a country of rugged individuals. We raise our sons and daughters to be independent. Self-sufficiency is the ultimate goal of parenting, and we would like for them to achieve it at age eighteen. As young adults, we won’t think of getting married until we are financially independent, even though we often need two incomes to sustain one household. And when we do get married, even in our own families, we are seeking a secluded life.
The Wall Street Journal observed this as it reported new trends in architecture. We are designing homes to make sure that people stay to themselves. “Major builders and top architects are walling off space. They’re touting one-person ‘Internet alcoves,’ locked-door ‘away rooms,’ and his-and her-offices on opposite ends of the house. In fact, the showcase of the Ultimate Family Home hardly had a family room. The boy’s personal playroom had its own forty-two-inch plasma TV, and the girl’s bedroom had a secret mirrored door leading to a ‘hideaway karaoke room.’”
We live in a society where ultimate happiness is portrayed by a man, in an expensive car, with leather seats, with a blasting stereo, driving as fast as he can, making smooth corners on a road somewhere, completely isolated, completely alone.
Of course, after driving in traffic gridlock of D.C., I do understand this fantasy a bit more… but the problem with this advertising fairytale is that the isolation, even in with great wealth, is not making us any happier. This era of independence, of self, does not bring us contentment.
Bill McKibben writes about all of this in his book, Deep Economy. As wealth has grown in the last couple of decades in our country, happiness has declined. Americans who said they visited with their neighbors fell from one-third to one-fifth, and it keeps falling. We’ve been working too hard. We’ve been entertaining ourselves in our own personal playrooms.
Our sense of independence has affected American religion, where a personal, privatized faith in Jesus Christ has become much more important than the faith community. I know of some churches have difficulty maintaining their budgets because people give so much to televangelists. What they receive in the privacy of their own homes is more important than being a part of a body of believers.
We have based so much of our economy on individual gain, even though our communities suffer. Wal-Mart is a good example of this. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law work for Sam’s, so I know a lot about Wal-Mart and their employment practices. People shop there because the prices are so low for the individual customer. And yet, as the superstores have multiplied, we know that they are bad for our communities.
In the few years that Wal-Mart was expanding in Iowa, “the state lost 555 grocery stores, 298 hardware stores, 293 building supply stores, 161 variety shops, 158 women’s clothing stores, and 116 pharmacies.” A new Wal-Mart eliminates a job and a half for every job it creates. Comprehensive studies have shown that counties with Wal-Marts have grown poorer than surrounding counties, and the more Wal-Marts stores in the county, the faster they grew poorer. Communities suffered but the individual benefits, from lower prices.
The other problem with putting individual gain over the community is that humans seem to be genetically wired for community. People who have good friends or who are close to their families are happier than those who are not. People who participate in religious communities are happier than those who are not. Joining a club, a society, a church of some kind cuts in half the risk that you will die in the next year.
And the activity that makes Americans happy, that produced all kinds of joy? Volunteer work. People make friends through it. They see results. It broadens their experience of life. It gets people out of themselves.
(Speaking of volunteering, here is the latest news on Miriam’s Kitchen, the homeless program in our church. The photo is also of our happy volunteers.)
Now, how do we convince our culture? How do we let people who have grown up in an onslaught of “buy this and you’ll be happy and independent” messages know that it doesn’t actually work that way?