Happiness, American-style

We Americans consider the pursuit of happiness to be among our inalienable rights.  In this, we are probably alone.  Other nations and peoples strive for happiness, but never elevate such striving to a political principle.  They may question whether happiness can be mandated — the history of most nations shows little ground for optimism.

The French, for example, consider themselves happy when they experience a dignified defeat:  think De Gaulle’s “Free French,” or the medieval epic of Roland (who blew out his brains trumpeting too hard for help — maybe dignified is the wrong word here. . .)

In ways that Americans rarely perceive, our history is different.  It’s far more benign, and in consequence we aren’t troubled by doubt or cynicism.  We expect happiness.

Apparently, we find it.  The national mood can be bipolar, and at the moment we are in a depressive mood, possibly because we can spy the presidential elections coming around the corner.  But in most surveys of happiness among countries, we tend to rank high.

What makes Americans happy?  To a moralist, that is an important question.  I will therefore attempt to offer a moralist’s answer:  nothing less, nothing more.  There is some data on the subject — “measures of subjective well-being” — but this is psychology and sociology, both imbued with a kind of naive faith in the power of grand impersonal forces to shape human behavior.  The data touches on morality only occasionally, and by accident.

The best-known American path to happiness lies through achievement.  That’s the American dream:  great success derived from great merit.  Nothing wrong with that formulation, so long as we understand the terms correctly.

What do we mean by success?  Usually we mean a career crowned by accomplishment, high status, money, or fame.  Again, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that — but a successful career, I would think, is unlikely to inspire happiness.  Satisfaction, yes.  Pride, certainly.  But if happiness is the right configuration, internal and external, of an individual and his circumstances, even the noblest, most exalted career — a Jonas Salk’s or a Mother Teresa’s — will not, by itself, produce happiness.  More is needed.

For an American, the great temptation is to measure success in terms of money, and happiness by the number of things we have accumulated.  That is wrong on at least two counts.  First, wealth is liberating — but we need some sense or knowledge of what to do with such liberty, if we wish to attain happiness.  Money can buy toys, and toys can be fun:  but a lifetime of fun will not add up to a second’s happiness.

Second, a fixation on money or things as a measure of happiness can lead to endless frustration, and ultimately to envy, the lowest vice.  I can always want more.  Unless I am Bill Gates, there will always be others ahead of me, others who seem (to me) to deserve less yet rake in more, and probably always will.

Those who look on a large bank account or a luxurious house and equate them with happiness are on the brink of a miserable life.  They will chase and never catch.  Those who measure their own happiness against the wealth amassed by their neighbors have slipped over the brink:  they are not only mistaken as a matter of fact, but low and contemptible as a matter of morality.

As Jean Yarbrough makes clear, Jefferson meant something very particular by his famous phrase:  “The order of nature,” he said, “is that individual happiness shall be inseparable from the practice of virtue.”

The American way to happiness, if we follow Jefferson, lies through decency, unselfishness, and largeness of spirit.  These traits aren’t incompatible with achievement, they merely place it in perspective.  A good character, and the trust and affection of family and friends, should not be sacrificed for a promotion, or a more imposing house, or a fancy car:  a terrible bargain, if the goal is personal happiness.

The practice of virtue is wholly incompatible with envy.  That should be obvious and need not be elaborated on.

A nontrivial question is whether Jefferson was correct in his assumptions about virtue and happiness.  In reply, I could use a debater’s trick, and observe that the problem negates itself:  if Jefferson was wrong about virtue, then he was equally wrong about the right to happiness.  In such a case, we must adjust our expectations.  End of story.

A more honest answer would be to say that Jefferson was an optimist.  Because the American character is Jeffersonian — because we live, happily, in a Jeffersonian moment — by and large we are optimistic too.  We believe we can forge our own future, and so we believe we can attain happiness, rightly pursued.

Luck and fate may intervene.  We don’t choose the family into which we are born, or our genetic endowment, or the kind of culture in which we must find our way.  But, given who and where we are born, the path of virtue, adorned with achievement, remains the least uncertain route to happiness.


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