Western men and women aren’t very happy with their lives.
I’ll admit, I typically read these research papers and polling surveys with pronounced skepticism. Modern westerners often possess a hypochondriac disposition, forever focusing on what is lacking in life instead of recognizing the infinite blessings of living in a modern Western society where freedom is more abundant, an opportunity is more bountiful, and health is more widespread than in any given place and time in human history.
Sure, a perennial sense of dissatisfaction spurs a utopian ethic of constant improvement. But it also hides the inordinate blessing of living here and now.
[bctt tweet=”In fact, four out of ten adults regret the lives they have lived thus far.” username=””]
However, when a modern teacher digs a little deeper and reads why people are so unhappy these days, it leaves the distinct impression that things are not going to get better any time soon.
Here’s why: the behaviors, values, and world-views that serve as the fountainhead of misery and gloom for so many modern men and women are already on full display in modern American classrooms.
According to a survey of 2,000 British citizens commissioned by a charity consortium, prominent dissatisfaction stems from a depressing hodge-podge of disappointments about the way people have chosen to spend their time and the values they have chosen to pursue.
People, it turns out, can recover from making bad decisions. But what haunts them is inaction.
Thus, a common thread of discontent centers on what people have failed to do with their allotted time in life—failed to focus on their families and friendships, failed to see the world and pull themselves away from the ubiquitous frivolity of screens, failed to live in a healthy manner, failed to be good parents.
The endless supply of modern me-centered bromides about pursuing one’s dreams and chasing pleasures is hollow when adults are asked to look in the rear-view mirror of life and make a value judgment about its worthiness.
As David Brooks has observed in his current best-selling book The Second Mountain, “Our society suffers from a crisis of connection, a crisis of solidarity. We live in a culture of hyper-individualism. There is always a tension between self and society, between the individual and the group. Over the past sixty years, we have swung too far toward the self.”
While the survey seemed to focus on men and women in the middle of life, an older AARP survey that focused on those who were truly on the cusp of death is eerily similar in its tones of regretting inaction. The most frequent disappointments also emanated from what people did not do with their lives—living a life, not of their choosing, not maintaining friendships, not focusing on what is joyful and fretting about unimportant things.
Our inner life, it seems, has been cramped by the forces of a post-modern world in which values are relative, commitments are transient, religious and political institutions are deemed untrustworthy, and the promise of education has been hijacked by an unapologetic careerism in which learning is no longer about human flourishing but about acquiring a commercial skill-set that is deemed valuable in the global labor market.
This all-too-frequent existential panic, clearly rooted in our modern malaise and the fetishization of all things related to “I,” “me,” or “self,” no longer drives us into churches, mosques, and synagogues for refuge. It no longer kindles emotional aspirations for wholeness through erotic or fraternal love. It no longer seeks a respite from existential dread by asking us to consider (perhaps for the first time) the roles of duty, honor, or obligation in our lives. These responses, sadly, seem “old-fashioned” or “parochial” to many of us living in the modern age.
English novelist and winner of the Man Booker Prize, Julian Barnes, eloquently elucidates the hollowness of our modern notions of personal fulfillment in his book Nothing to Be Frightened Of. He writes: “We encourage one another towards the secular modern heaven of self-fulfillment: the development of the personality, the relationships which help define us, the status-giving job, the material goods, the ownership of property, the foreign holidays, the acquisition of savings, the accumulation of sexual exploits, the visits to the gym, the consumption of culture. It all adds up to happiness—doesn’t it?”
What does any of this have to do with teachers, schools, or education, in general?
A common thread among the different regrets people list is that modern men and women engage in behaviors that consistently make their world smaller and banaler.
Instead of reading, they watch TV. Instead of traveling, they stay close to home. Instead of engaging in face-to-face conversation, they text one another. And they stare and scroll . . . stare and scroll, stare and scroll, stare and scroll . . . for hour upon hour upon hour. Deep down people know the hundreds of hours spent on devices are lost in the abyss, devoid of the smallest patina of meaning. And in the meantime, their devices distract from conversation, from eating a meal, from looking at the sky or the stars when walking through life. Young married couples are even engaging in less sexual activity because they are distracted by their cell phones before they go to bed.
While it is chic and fashionable for politicians to make light of the humanities and the arts, to scoff at art history majors or insist that coding should replace music in curricular standards, all of this misery and unhappiness prompts a fascinating question: as we have commercialized education for the past fifty years, is it really a coincidence that our economies have grown (and along with more work hours and less leisure) but our civic and personal lives are clearly in peril?
We forget that until very recently—post-Industrial Revolution—the primary purpose of education was to prepare future citizens for the arduous responsibilities of citizenship in a democratic republic. Self-government requires that we know how to govern, at a minimum, ourselves. Hundreds and hundreds of pages could be filled with quotes from a smorgasbord of Greeks, Romans, and early Americans about the link between free societies and the need for robust education.
Because liberty without education is akin to car keys without a license. Freedom is meaningful when people “freely” attach themselves to causes, relationships, and places they love more than they love themselves. This is why freedom is a necessary precondition for “the pursuit of happiness.” Without the freedom to decide what is worthy, what is laudable, and what is good, our lives are more analogous to subjugation than liberation. We have confused liberty with licentiousness, individualism with indulgence.
Democracies, by their very nature, are hesitant to use the vernacular of the ancient philosophers who were fond of referring to “the higher,” “the good,” or “the sublime,” in human life. Our hesitation to declare that certain aims or forms of living are superior to others have hand-cuffed our aspirations in the arena of education. In our desire to be egalitarian of all life decisions, we have decided that radical individualism is merely one choice of many. No better. No worse. And yet, if rates of anxiety, stress, depression, and suicide are any indication, this deification of the self is clearly making us miserable.
Freedom, it was assumed by the intellectual architects of the Enlightenment, would make the world bigger for the common man and woman by affording them the opportunity to define their own horizons. Instead, we live in an age in which freedom has been perversely used to willfully and intentionally make the world, and the lives populating it, smaller, more cloistered, more cut off, more alone and lacking in authentic connections.
The solution, of course, is not to limit freedom, but to teach young people that there is a buffet of meaningful possibilities in life in regards to what to do with their freedom.
The broad exposure to life’s possibilities is one of the reasons we teach so many different subjects—hoping, of course, that it leads not to debilitating isolation, potent regret, or existential anxiety, but to a sense of well-being, moments of joy, or even happiness itself.
But beyond course content, what I am hinting at is the restoration of the teacher as an exemplar, a respected standard, and custodian of adulthood, a model of “the good life.” All teachers have made the decision to pursue careers that are hardly about the self. Wealth, glory, fame, recognition, accolades—going into teaching for these ends is as wise as entering politics to avoid publicity. We should share how we feel about our profession, why we entered it, and why, most of all, I would guess that the 40% who regret the choices of their lives include very few teachers.