Is everybody happy? Or rather, is anybody happy? Ever since Thomas Jefferson asserted that the pursuit of happiness is our inalienable right, Americans have been feverishly stalking the good life.
But happiness is an elusive goal. Despite our economic success and technological advances, we ache with melancholy and loneliness.
Signs of unhappiness abound. Rates of clinical depression have been doubling every 10 years. Divorce has become more common than marriage. Everyone, it seems, is complaining of overwork and stress, insomnia and anxiety. Sufferers are flocking to pharmacies for relief. The three most frequently prescribed drugs are an ulcer medication, a hypertension reliever and a tranquilizer.
We covet happiness, we yearn for it, but what is it? Is it something we find or something we create? Is it a function of what we have, or what we do, or how much we earn, or what we accomplish?
Through the centuries, people have offered quite different definitions of happiness. “All you need for happiness,” said Daniel Boone, “is a good gun, a good horse and a good wife” in that order. In a similar vein of male chauvinism, the satirist H. L. Mencken asserted that “the only really happy folk are married women and single men.”
With the passage of time, however, the pursuit of happiness has become more focused on self-gratification. “Don’t worry, be happy!” the jazz singer Bobby McFerrin crooned in 1989, and more than 10 million people bought the record. Even more embraced the song’s simple formula for happiness.
Every age has its illusions. Ours has been that happiness is synonymous with smiling yellow “happy face” decals and “have a nice day” greetings. Happiness is presumed to be as readily available as a prescription medicine or a do-it-yourself video. One company hawking “feel good” tapes claims that the curative cassettes will enable the purchaser to “wake up every day, completely happy, eager to live.”
According to hucksters, we can also achieve happiness by eating less or eating more, by undergoing liposuction or cosmetic surgery or a hair implant. We can take Prozac, or St. John’s Wort, or rub ourselves with crystals, or follow the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, or hire a personal fitness trainer.
Many people assume that more money will bring them happiness, only to discover that wealth does not bring a greater sense of well-being. A recent study of 100 multi-millionaires reveals that rich people are no happier than the rest of us. Between 1957 and 1990, per capita income in America more than doubled, yet, as psychologist David Myers notes in “The Pursuit of Happiness,” the number of Americans who reported being “very happy” has remained constant.
What especially complicates the pursuit of happiness is its relative nature. We don’t want simply to be happy in our own right. We want to be happier than other people, which is extraordinarily difficult, since we assume they are happier than they really are.
No matter how satisfied we are with our salaries and possessions, there is always someone else who seems to be doing better. This annoying disparity goads us to earn more and buy more. Breaking the grip of such self-defeating envy is one of the keys to a happier life. “I should say,” observes a character in Michael Frayn’s novel, “A Landing on the Sun,” “that happiness is being where one is and not wanting to be anywhere else.”
So what is to be done? First, we need to recognize that there are no shortcuts to genuine happiness, no “quick-fix” therapies or drugs to bring lasting fulfillment.
Second, some people are naturally unhappy. Their body chemistry or doleful disposition leads them to embrace cynicism and melancholy. Brooding animates their days. They wear marks of woe and furrowed brows like badges of honor.
Third, happiness is not synonymous with pleasure. It is instead a deeper emotion that originates from within. Recent psychological studies conclude that enduring gratification cannot be gained by direct effort; instead it is a byproduct of how we live.
Happiness, like Carl Sandburg’s fog, creeps into our lives on little cat feet. It results from a sense of mental and moral contentment with who we are, what we value and how we invest our time and resources for purposes beyond ourselves. Thomas Jefferson equated happiness with the living of a socially virtuous and useful life. “It is neither wealth nor splendor, but tranquility and occupation ,”Jefferson said, “which give happiness.”
Jefferson recognized that the happiest people are those who find joy in the commonplace nourishments of daily living. They relish their friendships, families, work, faith, pets and hobbies. And they are not bedeviled by the urge to get something more, something new, something better. As the writer Edith Wharton insisted, “If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.”
David Shi, a cultural historian, is president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and author of “The Simple Life.”