A new survey of 178 nations by the University of Leicester in England reports that the Danes are the happiest people in the world, followed by the Swiss, Austrians, and Icelanders, etc. Happiness is correlated with wealth and education, the study suggests. “Here we have social security, so that if we fall ill, we know that we will be taken care of. We can relax,” one Danish commentator said about the results.
This comment raises the distinction between contentment and happiness. Cows, when they are well cared for, are said to be “contented.” Only human beings can be happy, and that normally entails high degrees of risk, challenge, and achievement, in order to bring one’s own powers for action and feeling to their highest possible levels. Happiness includes measures of freedom, choice, responsibility, and the fulfillment of one’s duties, but also of one’s own highest personal goals. It includes a sense of honor and nobility.
The Danes may score very well on these grounds, too.
But in certain corners of social science, skills in distinguishing humans from the other animals are not always well developed. When I showed up for graduate school at Harvard in 1960, the shadows of B.F. Skinner still fell long across the campus. And one sees still today social scientists as contented as cows in their pastures, never lifting their eyes up to the higher levels of human achievement. In the face of the transcendent, they are like the color-blind—unable to see the full splendor of a sunset over the water, or like an auditor who is tone-deaf concluding that Beethoven is boring. Transcendence-blindness is a conspicuous feature of a secular culture. It is part of one’s education—or, rather, malformation. It seems especially strong among social scientists.
However, I do recall John Cogley, the great editor of Commonweal
in the 1950s, opining that some of the people who belong to churches don’t understand transcendence very well, either. What they grasp most clearly are fund drives, putting up buildings, keeping busy. Transcendence, if they met it, would scare them.
While we’re at it—what on earth is transcendence? How many of you have encountered it? What is your favorite way of making the experience vivid for those who are tone-deaf to it?
(Access contributors’ biographies by clicking here .)
Make My Gift
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles
like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read
First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors,
young professionals and families.
Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think
in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?