Open a search engine and type, “It didn’t make me happy,” and you’ll find stories of people getting married, getting divorced, having a family, finding and losing jobs, converting to one religion or another, gaining and losing weight, making money, giving it away, moving from one place to another, reaching career goals. You’ll find story after story of people getting what they want and finding it didn’t give them what they thought it would. Eventually, if you keep looking, you might find the story of Donna Mikkin, who achieved what many people are dreaming of: she won the lottery.
In 2007, Donna and her husband, Ed, won $34.5 million through the New York State Lottery. And now she says, “my life was hijacked by the lottery.” Far from improving her life, the windfall made things worse. “Most of us think that winning the lottery is the ultimate fulfillment. But I found that wasn’t the case. Most people look at winning the lottery as some magic pot of gold waiting for you at the end of the rainbow.” But it brought her no peace, happiness, or contentment, and she became a person she didn’t want to be.
Lest you believe Mikkin is an isolated case, consider this. Experts say 70 percent of people who win the lottery (or otherwise come into a sudden windfall of money) are bankrupt within five years. Some lottery winners learn to manage their wealth and don’t regret their wins, but many, like Mikkin, feel like anything but winners. Their lives are dogged by mistrust, anxiety, and the consequences of foolish choices. Some meet with violence, others with constant requests for money. Some say their winnings are cursed. Others simply don’t like the person they see in the mirror. They say things like “I don’t like what I’ve become” and “I’d have been better off broke.”
Multiple studies have shown that while people may feel happier when they’re lifted from true poverty, above that level more money does not generally improve people’s sense of well-being. In fact, some studies have shown it makes people’s lives less enjoyable. Psychologists point to various reasons why having more money doesn’t necessarily make people happier than they were before—and can actually make people miserable. One is the idea of “experience-stretching,” a concept that says as we are able to enjoy more of what money can buy, we enjoy the simpler pleasures in life less. So the things people used to enjoy before winning the lottery no longer give them joy.
In one classic study, conducted in the 1970s, researchers compared lottery winners with people who had recently suffered severe injuries that had left them with either partial or total paralysis. The study found that these accident victims derived more pleasure from everyday activities than the lottery winners. As the study’s authors explained, “Eventually, the thrill of winning the lottery will itself wear off. If all things are judged by the extent to which they depart from a baseline of past experience, gradually even the most positive events will cease to have impact as they themselves are absorbed into the new baseline against which further events are judged.” In other words, we have a tendency to adjust our expectations, and our standard of what will make us happy, to match our experiences. Happiness is a moving target.
The stories of miserable lottery winners are about people who bought tickets because they wanted to win. They thought their winnings would make their lives better. And like so many, they have discovered a decidedly biblical truth: The places we often seek satisfaction fail to satisfy. In fact, they can leave us more miserable than we were without them.
All we need to do is seek satisfaction in a relationship with Jesus, right?
If you’re a Christian, and you’ve been following Jesus for more than three minutes, you may be shocked by the title of this post. After all, if orthodox theology is defined by the best-selling Christian books and other Christian media, this is heresy.
While most Christians freely embrace the idea that the world doesn’t satisfy (although most of us—including me—still face temptation to seek satisfaction in various ways in this world), many do believe the remedy is to seek satisfaction in a relationship with Jesus. And they believe that remedy will make their longings disappear. As long as we are in relationship with Jesus, he will fill that “God-shaped hole” inside us, and once that hole is filled, we will no longer ache with desire or longing or a nagging sense of dissatisfaction or spiritual suffering. We have no shortage of Christian pastors, teachers, and other leaders telling us this very thing. While the world doesn’t satisfy, they say, Jesus does.
The trouble is, while knowing and following Jesus has its priceless rewards, and leads to complete satisfaction, it won’t deliver on this promise now. Sometimes obedience makes a person miserable. Sometimes it leads to suffering or even death. Yes, a relationship with God can bring comfort, peace, and even joy in such circumstances. But it may not bring satisfaction or happiness—at least in complete and lasting form.
It’s time to question this message.
This post was excerpted from chapter 1 of my new book, Blessed Are the Unsatisfied: Finding Spiritual Freedom in an Imperfect World. If you want to read more, you can find the book here or wherever you buy books.
Taken from Blessed Are the Unsatisfied by Amy Simpson. Copyright(c) 2018 by Amy Simpson. Used by permission from InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.
© 2018 Amy Simpson.