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The (American) Pursuit of Happiness

Americans’ search for happiness has been a remarkably democratic one.

Ask any American what he or she wants most in life and the majority will say to be happy. The pursuit of happiness—a phrase penned by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence—has served as a primary ambition for many Americans in the nation’s history, especially during the past century. Happiness became a louder and louder part of the national conversation over the years, riding on the greater interest in psychology and the expansion of that field, especially as related to personality. Despite a myriad of social, economic, and political factors including the crossing over into a new century and millennium, an aging population, a technological revolution, and the entry of large institutions and major corporations on the scene, the degree of happiness in America has not budged for as long as it has been measured.

Today, much interest currently revolves around happiness in America (and around the world), so much so that one could reasonably argue that there is a “happiness movement” afoot. Americans’ ambitious, perhaps even desperate search for happiness has been a remarkably democratic one. No segment of the population has been excluded, with studies showing time and time again that social and economic divisions such as income, education, intelligence, and religion matter little in determining one’s level of happiness. Researchers have pulled happiness apart every which way over the past century in the attempt to establish a scientific basis for the fledgling field, but these efforts have been largely in vain. Relatedly, individuals’ happiness has been little affected by the wide cultural swings the nation has experienced since the end of World War I. Boom or bust, war or peace, turmoil or tranquility, or liberal or conservative in the White House, Americans’ happiness has proven to be largely resilient to the constant shifting of our social and economic plates.

Not surprisingly, given the complexity and enigmatic nature of the emotion, happiness has proved to be a very challenging subject for researchers in the field to try to understand. Researchers have asked the same questions over the decades, with the answers still not clear. Does a happy childhood produce a happy adult? (Sometimes.) Were people in the past happier than today? (Perhaps.) Is happiness more a function of environmental factors or the individual mind? (Some say the latter, others the former.) Is unhappiness the opposite of happiness? (Apparently not, strangely enough, with some studies showing that each emotion has a range or spectrum all of its own.) What is happiness, anyway? (A subjective state of wellbeing, according to most experts.)

Further complicating matters has been the bias critics have shown when examining happiness. Sociologists have viewed happiness through the lens of society, psychologists the mind, physicians the body, preachers one’s faith, politicians the government, and so on. This has made the field a jumble or hodgepodge of viewpoints, more so I believe than most other subjects. As well, all sorts of experts have attempted to control or take ownership of happiness in America in some way, this too contributing to the scattered nature of the subject. Businesspeople, government officials, and religious leaders have seen themselves as arbiters of happiness and have assumed responsibility for delivering it to Americans in order to solidify their own power. Likewise, politicians from each persuasion have often claimed to be the greater instrument of happiness than their competitors, making it appear that the emotion can be bestowed rather than earned.