A new narrative of happiness is emerging.
by Lawrence R. Samuel Ph.D.
Americans are considered to be a generally happy people, both among themselves and by foreigners, but the story of happiness in this country is in fact not an especially pretty one. Self-doubt, insecurity, and uncertainty have been tightly woven into the narrative of happiness, a major source of frustration for those seeking to be happier people. In conjunction with our achievement- and money-oriented society that is often the source of what Alain de Botton called “status anxiety,” the belief that we are a chosen people and a shining example to others around the world to follow have set too high of a bar of happiness for most individuals to actually realize.
Our core mythologies grounded in specialness and superiority have been instrumental in leading Americans to assume they are entitled or have an inherent right to happiness, the basis for a rude surprise when life does not turn out that way. Our expectations for happiness have far exceeded its realization, in other words, suggesting our way of life rooted in consumer capitalism has major flaws in terms of emotional fulfillment. In a nutshell, happiness has proven to be an elusive and often futile pursuit in this country over the last century, something that has held true across the social divisions of race, gender, and class.
One thus has to question Americans’ inclination to work harder to make more money in order to become happier. Inscribed in our national charter, happiness is no doubt a very American idea, but the ways in which most of us pursue it are not very well suited to creating it. Our system of free-market capitalism (the American Way of Life) and aspirational ethos (the American Dream) are actually better designed to generate stress than happiness, I believe, with the pressures of modern life not conducive to promoting a state of wellbeing. Those who have dropped out of the “rat race” are more likely to find a sense of inner peace, history shows, implying that our competitive society is at best not ideal and at worst fundamentally flawed in terms of seeding the possibility of happiness.
The coronavirus pandemic is a terrible thing, of course, but it has presented us with a singular opportunity to rewrite the story of happiness. Our priorities have realigned, in the process laying a foundation for a happier future, both individually and collectively. We have become less acquisitional and consumptive, a very good thing given the detrimental role that the endless pursuit of stuff has played in our lives. We’re more appreciative and grateful for what we have and less concerned for what we desire. Our orientation has shifted more towards relationships with family, friends, and neighbors, which research study after research study has shown to be the ideal basis for nurturing happiness. With our interconnectedness now readily apparent, we appear to be caring more for each other, this too a main ingredient of happiness. We’ve become more patient and reflective, a precious asset that most of us have undervalued. Our slower pace has provided the time to focus, a far richer luxury than anything we could purchase with money.
Amidst all the bad news, then, a new narrative of happiness is emerging, one grounded in the simple pleasures of life, the most important one being love. Let’s embrace this once-in-a-lifetime chance to transform ourselves into a truly happy people.