How the Pursuit of Happiness Makes Us Crazy

Happy woman laughing against white background
Happy woman laughing against white background

The last time our family got together -- finding all of us in the same zip code at the same time is a rare and wondrous feat -- we hunkered down in a suite at the Holiday Inn Express (backstory not important). With no bar or restaurant in sight, our family of foodies trekked to the closest place of business, a gas station mini mart, and bought tortilla chips, bean dip and salsa and wine, which we drank out of styrofoam coffee cups.

I think we were happy.

I got to thinking about all this happiness business the other day via a piece in the New York Times that suggests that our all-American pursuit of happiness leads to nothing but angst. The writer, Ruth Whippman, a Brit who recently relocated to California, contrasts British grim to American happy and says she'll take grim any day. She starts her piece with a quote from Eric Hoffer -- "The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness" -- then sails right in:

Happiness in America has become the overachiever's ultimate trophy. A vicious trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship and even love. Its invocation can deftly minimize others' achievements ("Well, I suppose she has the perfect job and a gorgeous husband, but is she really happy?") and take the shine off our own.

Point taken. We have tied ourselves up in knots of late by using happiness as the barometer of who we are, what we are and what we're doing. And we find that no matter what, the scale is such that we don't measure up. How could we? I can't even define happiness. Can you?

Nonetheless, this endless quest for what we consider our birthright lands us smack in the land of "yeah, but..." A good job that pays the rent? A job that's maybe even engaging for some part of the day? Yeah, but... If I put in a few more hours, if I got that raise, if I had a better title, if i didn't have to grade those papers... Then I'd be happy.

Family and friends? We had a blast the last time we got together, but if only we could do it more often. And, you know, the last time the wine was kinda sub-par....

Great kids? Well, yeah... He/she plays well with others, and indeed rocks the playground, but, sigh, we'd all be happier if he/she could get into that Chinese immersion program, get on the select soccer team, score off the charts in math or get into that pricey school that everyone is talking about.

You get the drift. We've bought into the idea that happy is measurable. For women especially, it breaks down like this: A great career with a fat paycheck and smug title. Exotic vacations (cue Facebook). Adorable family that shows well in the Christmas card photo. And, of course, scores well, too. Sexy as all get-out (and thin to boot). A closet full of killer boots. (Okay, my own personal preference. Note: I do not measure up.) Yoga class and book club and granite in the kitchen.

Is it all about the shoulds? The quest for perfect? For most of us, the package is unachievable. But even if we could lay claim to the whole checklist, there's always this: The next big thing. Call it the "If-then" fallacy that keeps us living in the future and blame it on what Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes in Stumbing on Happiness as our uncanny ability to blow it when it comes to predicting what will make us happy. There's something else at play here, too: the American culture itself. As we wrote in Undecided:

What gets us into trouble is a culture that is both acquisitional and aspirational, leaving us in a constant drool for the Next. Big. Thing. But once we get it, guess what? We're happy for five minutes, and then we're off on the chase. We're back to square one, lusting again over that greener grass. And here's an irony: Once we've jumped the fence, we sometimes wonder if what we had in the first place might have been what we really wanted after all.

Consumer culture doesn't help. We're constantly fed the message that we will be happy, sexy, thin, loved -- pick one -- if we buy the new and improved face cream, wheat bread, plastic wrap. Do we ever see the message that we have enough? Sure, we're smart enough to know that ads in glossy magazines do not promise happiness, but the subtext spills over: This thing will make you happy. Get the externals in order. Happiness to follow.

But anyway, back to Whitman, whose column sparked this riff. From her across-the-pond perspective, she has us down:

Since moving to the States just shy of a year ago, I have had more conversations about my own happiness than in the whole rest of my life. The subject comes up in the park pushing swings alongside a mother I met moments before, with the man behind the fish counter in the supermarket... While the British way can be drainingly negative, The American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety. The initial sense of promise and hope is seductive, but it soon gives way to a nagging slow-burn feeling of inadequacy. Am I happy? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could I be doing more about it? Even basic contentment feels like failure when pitched against capital-H Happiness. The goal is so elusive and hard to define, it's impossible to pinpoint when it's even been achieved -- a recipe for neurosis.

Bingo. In our lifelong chase after the impossible ideal we can't even define, we've blinded ourselves to what happiness may be all about after all: a certain contentment with what is. An ability to savor the moment. We might even get there if we could ratchet down our expectations.

Which leads us back to the Holiday Inn Express, where our party of five ended up talking and laughing well into the night. And even though the wine was sub-par, I think we were happy. Maybe even with a capital-H.