Does the MTV Generation Lack the Pilgrim Spirit?

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The Declaration of Independence says we have the right to pursue it, and some people seem obsessed with finding it. Nevertheless, a new survey indicates that many young people in America are not happy, even though they often live in spacious homes surrounded by every conceivable plaything.

Believe it or not, the newly released "Wellbeing" study was conducted by MTV International. MTV surveyed 5,200 young people (8-34) in fourteen countries, asking them questions about their self-perceived wellbeing: how they feel about the future, their safety, and their place in society. One aspect of the study was to look at how happy and optimistic young people felt in each of the different countries.

MTV said in a press release that the results of the survey were "counter-intuitive". By wide margins, poorer children in developing nations rated themselves happier than richer children in prosperous nations.

In Argentina and Mexico, for example, 60% of young people between the ages of 16-34 identified themselves as happy, and over 80% of children aged 8-15 said they were happy. Likewise, 60% of India's youth told researchers they were happy. Compare that to young people in the "developed" world. In the United States and the United Kingdom, less than 30% of young adults aged 16-34, and less than 50% of children 8-15, said they were happy. The situation in Japan is even worse; only eight percent acknowledged that they were happy.

It should not surprise anyone to learn that there was a clear correlation in the study between one's religious faith and their happiness: "Young people in the developing world were more religious, and there was a correlation between youth who were actively religious and happiness levels. Over half of 16-34 year-old Indonesians, Brazilians and Indians said they were religious, compared to one in four in the USA and one in 10 in Sweden and Germany." The survey found that in Japan, where young people are the least happy, 76% said they were "faithless."

The MTV study clearly shows that young people in America and across the developed world are not as happy as those boys and girls who live in the less prosperous developing world. For all the time some Americans spend obsessing over the material wellbeing of their children, for all the money spent on "self-esteem" classes trying to persuade them to be happy with themselves, children are less and less content. The empirical data reaffirms what we've known all along: money can't buy happiness.

Perhaps we should spend some time in America truly reflecting on the question: what is the good life? What is a happy life? There is no better time for such reflection than the week of Thanksgiving. Even though they were facing a long winter in a strange place, the Pilgrims set aside time for Thanksgiving, and this attitude, I am sure, was key to their happiness. In modern America, and across much of the modern developed world, we do not give thanks in the way the Pilgrims did, even on Thanksgiving. How many of us live in a spirit of gratitude, with humble appreciation for the many blessings God has given us?

It is so easy for us to take what we have for granted, and though we have more modern conveniences and technological marvels than even the richest kings and queens in years past, we are less happy. The MTV survey indicates that this lack of happiness might be tied to job security and pressure to succeed. While these are probably factors, they hardly seem primary. The basis of such discontent is likely to be found at a deeper level: it involves a fundamental uncertainty about the meaning of life and the source of true happiness. The pilgrims did not suffer from such uncertainty, and for that reason they joyfully gave thanks to God even as a long cold winter loomed before them. They knew that their future was in God's hands, and with that conviction they were free to joyfully celebrate the harvest and their many blessings.

This Thanksgiving, my prayer is that all Americans would come together with a Pilgrim spirit, in an attitude of joy and thankfulness for the blessings bestowed on us by our Creator. The MTV survey is an incredible reminder that what we buy our children will not really contribute to their long-term happiness. If, however, we impart to them a spirit of humble gratitude and love for God they will undoubtedly experience the happiness and joy that eludes so many others.

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Ken Connor is Chairman of the Center for a Just Society in Washington, DC and a nationally recognized trial lawyer who represented Governor Jeb Bush in the Terri Schiavo case. Connor was formally President of the Family Research Council, Chairman of the Board of CareNet, and Vice Chairman of Americans United for Life. For more articles and resources from Mr. Connor and the Center for a Just Society, go to www.ajustsociety.org. Your feedback is welcome; please email info@ajustsociety.org.