Happiness is an Elusive Goal
Is everybody happy? Or rather, is anybody happy?
since Thomas Jefferson asserted that the pursuit of happiness is our
inalienable right, Americans have been feverishly stalking the good
But happiness is an elusive goal. Despite our economic
success and technological advances, we ache with melancholy and
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.
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?
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."
the passage of time, however, the pursuit of happiness has become more
focused on self-gratification. "Don't worry, just be happy!" the jazz
singer Bobby McFerrin crooned in 1989, and over ten million people
bought the record. Even more embraced the song's simple formula for
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."
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
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 multimillionaires 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 [meaningful work]," Jefferson said,
"which give happiness."
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."