Franklin is 14 . He is 4’6” and malnourished. He lives in a shack the size of my shed… with his family of six. He has no toilet. He isn’t guaranteed three meals a day.
Chris is 19. He is 6’1” and well-built. He lives in a four-bedroom house in South-West London, owns an XBox, a iPhone 5 and an Apple Mac and parties most weekends. He attends one of the world’s top universities. When you meet Franklin, he beams at you. He exudes peace. When you meet Chris, you see stress already marked on his face. He smokes twenty cigarettes a day, and often struggles to sleep.
Why is it that you can walk through a slum in Kampala and encounter greater joy than you do here at Oxford University? What is it that people like Franklin have that many of us are missing?
19% of British adults are recorded to have symptoms of depression. It is not that Africa is necessarily any better, in fact the WHO suggests that it is worse; but it is intriguing that our culture, which has more than our fair share of the world’s resources, has so many people who do not feel fulfilled.
It is not as though we don’t pursue happiness. The vast majority of us spend most of our time striving after something; and if we examine our motives, it tends to be because we want to feel fulfilled. Oxford is a driven city: whether it is seeking a first-class degree, a blue, or the affections of other people, there is a drive for success. The case of Franklin suggests that perhaps we’re not driving in the right direction.
Society says that attaining influence, material wealth or recognition is what we need to be happy but the fact that a poor boy in a slum can be full of joy when someone who has all of these things is stressed and depressed tells us a different story. Influence, material wealth and recognition are clearly good things but perhaps we have to recognise that they do not have the power to really satisfy.
You only have to look at Ashley Cole ‘trembling with anger’ when, in 2006, Arsenal only offered him wages of £55,000 a week to see an illustration of this point. A man who had everything he is supposed to need is still angry because that is not enough. An example which is closer to home is the university admissions process. School says that getting into Oxbridge is the answer to all your problems. Most of my school year obsessed over university admissions for a year, or in some cases three years, in the hope that getting into the right university would bring them happiness. On results day, people opened their letters and there was great joy. This lasted about a week. Then life moved on. We turned to A-Level results, and the same thing happened. In fact, for many of us, that is all there is to life: a process of jumping through hoops. After A-Level results comes getting a good degree; then getting a good job; then finding a spouse; then bringing up children; then buying a comfortable house in the Cotswolds; and finally using the few years of your retirement to indulge yourself as much as possible.
School – University – Job – Spouse – Children – Retirement: certainly a comfortable life, but will it make you happy? A study by the Prince’s Trust suggests as many as three quarters of a million young people in the UK feel they have nothing to live for. You can see why. Jumping the hoops seems to have so little meaning. The people I know who are marked by real lasting joy are those who feel that there is more to life than that. Take Franklin – a Christian who is convinced of the love of God and of an eternal hope: a hope brings him greater joy than a plush house or a good degree.
Perhaps society is selling us a lie, the lie that jumping hoops will actually lead to a destination, that the rungs of the ladder are leaning against a real wall… Is there more to life than that? That is probably the most pressing question that anyone can ask.