Why Is It Everybody Else Is So Happy Except Me . . . and Other Sweeping Statements I Believe

Melancholy. Not a word that I frequently see or hear.

After all, how many of us would want to admit we are experiencing the feeling of melancholy? Or that we have a melancholic personality? Some of us may have tested the waters by admitting our profound sadness to others and have discovered the results are mixed. Alan Wolfelt, in writing to those who have experienced grief and loss, notes that a third of would-be-helpers will not respond, a third will be unhelpful, and a third will be helpful. Since our melancholic state fosters a tendency to bruise more easily, is it any wonder we find more security in withdrawing than searching for that third that is able to be present and empathic?

Some of us may try to withdraw into television, but there we find commercials demonstrating people dancing about their lower rates of car insurance; about the availability of some new medicine; or about their success with using Pepto Bismol. Such happiness is in sharp contrast to our feelings of melancholy, making it appear that no matter where we look, happiness is the optimal feeling experienced by everybody else but us.

Some may say those with melancholy need to socialize, so some of us may turn to social media.

However, pictures of celebrations, latest adventures, or most recent travels give the appearance that other lives are exciting and fulfilling, thereby happy.

I should know . . . I do it, too.

The truth is: many of us are not posting the rest of the story, the day-in-day-out grind of eat, work, sleep. Thus, followers of our posts make interpretations and judgments about our lives, deeming them to be busy, satisfying, rewarding, stimulating, and of course, happy. And it does not stop there. Our followers inevitably contrast our lives with their own, believing their lives to be quotidian, uneventful, undistinguished, dull, and . . . in comparison . . . unhappy. Such comparisons serve to isolate us from each other, not connect us more deeply. How ironic, then, that what is dubbed as social media may actually feed our isolation as we compare our real lives to those virtual lives.

As a person who is more geared toward melancholy, I admit that I have noticed a connection between my time on social media and my mood. I succumb to the tendency to compare my life with others, making positive judgments about their lives while making negative ones about mine. And apparently, I am not alone.

It seems that research shows that the ubiquitous usage of smartphones and social media may nurture humanity’s tendency to compare ourselves with others, particularly for the generation born between 1995 and 2012. While names such as Screenagers and iGen signify a large part of the identity of that generation, the names alone do not tell the whole story. Jean M. Twenge perceives that iGens are the first to be completely raised with smartphones and social media and also the most unhappy. She does not see this connection as simply correlation though. Twenge, quoting research by National Institute on Drug Abuse, notes “Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.” Twenge continues:

Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends.” Teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high since.[1]

Social media, then, does not always help in lifting us from the dire straits of our melancholy but may plunge some of us deeper. We end up comparing and making all-or-nothing statements such as “Why is everybody else so _________ except me?” This sinks us farther into the pit of despair all the while we long for a heartfelt connection.

What is it about comparison that motivates humans to do it so readily?

What deep longing are we seeking to satisfy when we compare ourselves to each other? Approval? Acceptance? Respect? Validation? Affirmation? To be seen? To be heard? Is our comparing an attempt to cover up a fundamental, underlining need that is common to humanity . . . relationality? Could it be that underneath our tendency to compare is an understanding that while basically alone in and of ourselves, we still have a core need to connect in some way with someone? Do we implicitly recognize our inability to control life with its uncertainty, revealing our own vulnerability, which pushes us toward desiring a connection? If so, we may be simply longing for someone to let us know, “You are okay.” Someone to validate us . . . affirm that we are all right as another human being. Someone who will sit with us, be present to us, and empathically listen to us. Someone who connects with us. In essence, serve as some kind of plumb line that we are not too weird.

Maybe that is what this blog is. It seeks to normalize humanity’s experiences of melancholy and the ways in which we attempt to assuage the sadness and longing for close, connecting relationships.

As a Christ-follower, I have realized my own lack of contentment when I compare myself with others. In short, comparison robs me of contentment.

The Apostle Paul seems to understand this when he writes in Philippians 4 how he learned (note the word choice here) to be content no matter the situation. Whether he had plenty or little, he had learned the secret of being content. Pentecostal Gordon Fee writes;

[Paul] had learned to accept whatever came his way, knowing that his life was not conditioned by either [plenty or nothing], and that his relationship to Christ made one or the other essentially irrelevant in any case.[2]

Fee sees that Paul’s contentment rises out of being in Christ, not from Paul’s own being. This means it’s “Christ’s sufficiency,” not “self-sufficiency.”[3] In Christ. This is true intimacy. This is the relationality for which we long. One cannot be closer than in the other. And for Paul, this was his secret. This is important to recognize, particularly when we read the often-quoted verse of 4:13:

I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.[4]

Contrary to popular Christian thought, this verse is not about being able to do anything, be anything, or having anything—that is, successfully live victoriously. Instead, this verse is about being content. As Fee writes, it is because of Paul’s being in Christ—“that is, in the one who enables”—that Paul is able to live in contentment no matter the circumstances.[5] Because of this union with the one who continues to strengthen him, Paul is able to live in contentment, not comparison. So no matter the extreme of his circumstance, Paul is content because he is in Christ.[6] He is in the very being of Jesus Christ, in the divine life. Here is where Paul finds his contentment. Not in self-agency but in Christ-agency.

Holy Spirit, may I understand more today than yesterday of what it is to be in Christ so that I may be able to say more today than yesterday, “I am learning to be content in whatever circumstance I am.”

 

[1] Jean M. Twenge “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” in The Atlantic (September 2017), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/ (accessed July 5, 2019). For more reading on this subject, see Jean M. Twenge’s iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017); Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2018).

[2] Gordon Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s, 1995), 433.

[3] Ibid., 434.

[4] While many translations use the preposition “through” so it reads “through the one who strengthens me,” scholars, like Fee, Peter O’Brien, and Jerry Sumney, push against this, preferring “in the one who strengthens me.” Using “through,” they say, promotes triumphalism. See Fee, 434, fn 48.

[5] Ibid., 434, fn. 48.

[6] Peter O’ Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s, Publishing, 1991), 527.

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