Twenty years ago Bobby McPherrin had a hit, Don’t Worry. Be Happy. Now we’re unhappier than ever. And there’s far less joy in our songs. Is there a connection?
According to the 2019 World Happiness Report, the US is the unhappiest it’s ever been. Since 2010, the Report has tracked seven markers of happiness, including GDP per capita. The US has dropped to No. 19. Given what we have, you’d think we’d be happier.
Think again. Music researchers Kathleen Napier and Lior Shamir say there is 38 percent less joy and far more negative feelings in music today than in the 1960s. This correlates research by Peter Christensen, a media professor who studies words in music. He notes that the percentage of songs about “alcohol and drugs” has risen dramatically since 1960. But the percentage of songs about “wealth and status” has risen even faster. Only four percent touched on wealth and status in 1960. Now 25 percent of pop songs do.
This is an example of music serving as our cultural antennae. Like authors and artists and prophets, musicians often “get there” first. The rest of us “catch up.”
Take “wealth and status.” In 1966, UCLA began annually surveying 350,000 incoming college freshmen, asking why college? Over 80 percent of students in the 1960s put “Developing a meaningful philosophy of life” at the top of the list. “Being well off financially” was well down the list. Today, these two have traded places.
Being well off financially explains the dramatic rise in songs about “wealth and status” since 1960. But these aims are increasingly hard to attain. Almost 60 percent of today’s graduates have unrealistic expectations about how much they will earn after college. And they have significant debt (average student loan debt is $28,650).
The result is the percentage of songs about “alcohol and drugs” rising dramatically since 1960. On college campuses, there has been a dramatic rise in binge drinking and drugs over the last 10 years. Why not? A few years back a Harvard grad wrote that most of what he learned in college has no enduring value at all. Might as well party.
Of course, not all graduates are hurting financially. Yet many who attain wealth and status report being unhappy. David Brooks does in his new book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. By his own admission, Brooks bought “the lies our culture tells us. If you succeed, you’ll be happy. So, I lived that way.” That came crashing down in 2013. Brooks says he was shallow. He had few friends. His marriage ended.
The second mountain is about focusing on serving others. The Bible calls this joy. It is different than happiness, though both are good. Happiness comes from something you accomplish. Earning a degree. Starting a company. Joy comes from giving yourself away to others. It’s serving others. It’s dying to yourself, including all your possessions.
Happiness is momentary. It fades quickly. Bill Bradley experienced happiness standing at center court in Madison Square Garden after the New York Knicks won the 1970 NBA championship. He was saddened to see it already fading in the locker room afterward.
Joy doesn’t fade. It feeds a longing for eternity. “Joy is the serious business of heaven,” writes C. S. Lewis in Letters to Malcolm. In Surprised By Joy, he adds, “All Joy reminds. It is a by-product. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’” Joy points us toward heaven.
Friedrich Nietzsche recognized this. In Thus Spoke Zarathrusta, he writes: “All joy wants eternity/Wants deep, deep eternity.” Deep joy requires deep eternity. A real God. A real heaven. Nietzsche also recognized a coming day when people wouldn’t believe in the Christian God and a Christian heaven. A recent article in the Economist reminds us that day is today. Younger Americans no longer believe in “a Christian heaven.” Heaven has been shallowed out to some sort of vague idea.
This explains why we’re unhappier than ever—and why there’s less joy in our songs. Happiness is good. Joy is better. Joy is a by-product of dying to yourself. If you die to yourself, you’ll be joy-full, and a whole lot happier with what God gives you.