Almost everyone says that they want to be happy and want their children to be happy. They do not mean the brief sensation of pleasure that follows eating a tasty meal, entering a warm house on a cold day, or the sensations of orgasm. These feelings do not last long enough. When people say they want to be happy, they mean that they want to feel satisfied with their life most of the time.
However, there is often a long silence when adults are asked what they must do to attain happiness because most are unsure of the acts that might lead to this desirable state. Americans understand that wealth, fame, love, power, respect, and friends are only a means to the happiness that is the primary goal. It is surely odd that so many individuals yearn for a psychological state they are not sure how to obtain.
One reason why happiness is elusive is that there are two quite different paths that lead to a pair of somewhat different states that happen to have the same name in English. The first path requires the inheritance of a biology that mutes the moments of unhappiness that accompany run-of-the- mill frustrations, frights, and losses that are part of the human experience. This biology provides partial protection from excessive anxiety when one fails a test, loses money, misses an appointment, or feels an unusual ache. The same biology mutes an intense or prolonged guilt following an ethical misdemeanor or deep sadness when a friend moves away. The absence of bouts of psychic distress is the most accurate way to describe this state. Unfortunately, scientists do not yet know the specific genes that are the foundations of this desirable mental state.
Individuals have greater control over the path to a somewhat different state of happiness. Adults who are able to attain some of the goals they classified as worthy during adolescence enjoy a special quality of happiness. Although the goals pursued vary across individuals, cultures, and history, the most common are contributions to the welfare of others and accomplishments that both the person and his or her society admire.
The poet Wallace Stevens recognized that each person must invent the goals whose attainment would allow a feeling of life satisfaction. Stevens wrote, “ The final belief is to believe in a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” Those who inherited one of the physiologies that mute bouts of unhappiness and, in addition, managed to gratify at least one of the praiseworthy goals they invented are prepared to experience a state we might call “ super- happiness”. Social scientists call this precious state “subjective well-being”.
Each person’s pattern of identifications with family members as well as social class, ethnic, and national categories can enhance or dilute subjective well-being. Amos Oz, a celebrated Israeli writer, had an epiphany when his father, also a highly respected writer, told the young Amos he could place his childhood books on the same shelf that held the father’s volumes. This experience made it easier for the son to infer that perhaps he, too, possessed the potential to become a great writer. Because the son did attain the prize he valued he enjoyed a more intense happiness. Identifications with persons or groups that have undesirable properties can have the opposite effect. The celebrated literary critic Frank Kermode, who grew up in an extremely poor family on the Isle of Man, identified with those who had low social status in his society. Even though Kermode was accomplished and a distinguished professor at an elite British university, he did not lose his earlier identification. Kermode called his memoir “ Not Entitled” because he could not discard the uneasy feeling that bubbled up from the intuition that he had no business being a member of an elite group. Kermode’s identification generated feelings that resemble those of youth who grew up in families where a parent was mentally ill, alcoholic, a criminal, selfish, or dishonest. These identifications can dilute the level of well-being.
Information technology allows adults living in societies permeated with high levels of poverty, disease, corruption, and crime, such as Haiti or Somalia, to be acutely aware of the better conditions in richer nations. This awareness can be an obstacle to happiness, even among those with the appropriate biology who satisfied the obligations they had set for themselves because the level of well-being is dependent on the other person or group the person chooses for comparison. The Danes report the highest well-being of all nations surveyed. But if the Danes learned that 20 other nations had higher incomes, better health, and less crime their well-being would suffer without changing any condition in Danish society. An eleventh century Chinese scholar, Shao Yong, understood that happiness cannot escape comparisons with others. He wrote, “ I am happy because I am a human and not an animal, a male and not a female, a Chinese and not a barbarian, and because I live in Luoyang, the most wonderful city in the world.” Adults living in a poor nation who migrate to an economically developed country can compare their psychological state with the poor friends they left or the wealthier acquaintances they have met. Their level of well- being will depend on which group they chose for comparison.
I suspect, but cannot prove, that the generation of Americans born between 1960 and 1990 feel less happy than those born between 1870 and 1900 because the former have more reasons to doubt that the United States is the most moral, democratic, egalitarian, optimistic, and productive nation on earth. The earlier generation found it easier to enjoy an unadulterated pride over the American revolution, the Emancipation Proclamation, the bravery at the Alamo, and America’s critical contribution to the defeat of the Nazis and Japanese in 1945. Those born after 1960 are reminded regularly of the harsh treatment of slaves in the ante-bellum South, the slaughter of native Americans, the greedy robber barons who exploited European immigrants huddled in tenements, the murder of innocent civilians in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the millions of high school graduates who cannot read a newspaper, teenage girls fellating boys they met several hours earlier, school massacres, priests abusing children, physicians taking money from drug companies in exchange for touting the qualities of the firm’s medicines, and the Federal Government giving billions of dollars to banks, insurance firms, and automobile companies to rescue them from the consequences of excessively risky decisions, while doing less to help the millions of citizens who lost their homes because of a foolish decision to buy a house they could not afford. The belief that one’s nation has admirable qualities makes it easier to maintain a happy mood. Adults who accommodate to their nation’s mistakes have to cope with a cynicism that can be toxic to well-being. Thus, the properties and ambience of a person’s society has to be added to their biology, ability to attain worthy goals, and identifications in order to understand the level of well-being in a population.
The inability to control one’s biology, identifications, and societal conditions may explain why the Old English term “happ”, meaning luck, is the origin of the word happy. I suspect that most adults have the intuition that the actions most likely to lead to happiness resemble those of the sailor who must tack away from the final buoy when the wind is strong. Since it is impossible to mandate happiness, the wise strategy is to first select and then pursue a praiseworthy goal and hope that one morning a feeling of well-being will unexpectedly pierce consciousness.
Samuel Beckett captured the elusive nature of happiness in an exchange between the two tramps in his 1956 play “ Waiting for Godot.”
Vladimir: Say you are, even if it isn’t true.
Estragon: What am I to say?
Vladimir: Say I am happy.
Estragon: I am happy
Vladimir: So am I.
Estragon: So am I.
Vladimir: We are happy.
Estragon: We are happy. What do we do now, now that we are happy?
Vladimir: Wait for Godot.