“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
So says the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Sure we all know what it’s like to be happy and sure we want to be happy.
But what does it mean, that word happiness?
The Oxford English Dictionary categorizes “happiness” into three primary groups:
–Senses relating principally to good fortune
–Senses relating to pleasing appropriateness or aptness
–Senses relating to contentment.
The definition at the heart of the Declaration of Independence’s usage of the term, I think, would fall under the third category, a category the OED further divides into groups, the first of which defines happiness as “feeling or showing a deep sense of pleasure of contentment, exp. arising from satisfaction with one’s circumstances or condition; (also) marked by or expressive of such a feeling.” Now that’s one heck of a way to define feeling happy and I’d venture to say that of all the ways the OED defines “happy” this most of our modern usage of the term would fall under this definition, for is that not what happiness is? A feeling?
So being a US citizen, this is what my country promises me is my right–to pursue happiness. To pursue, in other words, something intangible, fleeting.
Now many of you may have heard of the world’s happiest countries lists. The first World Happiness Report was published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network on April 1, 2012 using data from 2005-2011. In September 2013 a second report was published focusing on data from 2010-2012.
America, by the way, was ranked #17 according to the report.
Now I won’t go into the criteria for what goes into “defining” happiness, for such is not the point of this post.
So what is the point?
The point of writing this post is precisely that promise given by my country’s Declaration of Independence.
I decided to write this post after hearing a friend of mine discuss a Newsweek article which described another study on happiness and in coming to a “definition” of happiness concluded that, based on the lowest common denominator, so to speak, of individuals who identified themselves as happy, these happy people shared three traits in common: gratitude, humility, and service to others.
Gratitude, humility, and service to others?
Where’s the money?
Here’s a quote from another Newsweek article, published in 2007: “Studies tracking changes in a population’s reported level of happiness over time have also dealt a death blow to the money-buys-happiness claim. Since World War II the gross domestic product per capita has tripled in the United States. But people’s sense of well-being, as measured by surveys asking some variation of “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life?,’ has barely budged.” (Begley, “Money & Happiness”)
Now I can just about hear most of you say duh. And, yes, this is nothing new. We’ve all heard money can’t buy you happiness.
Still, does this country–the good ol’ United States of America–not still operate under such a presumption at the collective level?
When it gets down to it, I see a few major values operating in this country: hyper-individualism, possession (of material goods), consumerism, self-sufficiency, and self-reliance. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, work hard to get what you (that is I) want. That’s the American way and if I live my life with these values, so my country tells me, I’ll be on the fast-track to the promised land of happiness.
But what of those aforementioned “common denominator values” of gratitude, humility, and service to others?
Are those anywhere present?
Now I cannot determine whether or not these three values are what “really” contributes to one’s state of happiness, but they make sense to me.
And how well do they fit into the American dream?
What follows are just some general reflections on this question.
Gratitude: Considering the rampant consumerism promoted within our society, the American value system does not place a high premium on gratitude. Sure we might be thankful for our families and friends, our lives in general, and what we have. And of course there are a great many who would not be very grateful for any of those things. But does not consumerism undercut gratitude? How grateful can we be when we are constantly bombarded with the “new and improved?” All of a sudden what I have is not good enough and I want more.
Many of us are probably grateful for the food we eat, whether we express it or not, but how many are grateful for the migrant workers who work tirelessly under horrible conditions so we might enjoy that food? Or the people working in virtual slave conditions to make the clothes we wear?
No, no, no, let’s not even think about them, because to do so would force us to ask questions about our very ways of life, what we enjoy, and what we take for granted.
And speaking of taking for granted, what about the water we drink, the air we breathe? How many of us go around being grateful for such?
Humility. Ha! I scoff at the very question of where humility fits into the grand American scheme of things. Sure, at the individual level I am sure a great many of us value humility. But at the collective level? We need not look much beyond the very structure of our country and its economic system to see that humility flounders at the bottom of our system of values. Heck, we can even go back to settling, founding, and expansion of this country to see the lack of humility.
We have to rise to the top to be happy don’t we? Stand at the top atop the shoulders of the many.
Remember Occupy Wall Street? It was a nice idea, sure, and it was wonderful to see so many people protesting, but it was doomed to fail from the get go? Why? Of course there’s many answers to the question, one of which is arrogance. Arrogance is so deeply ingrained in the American society as to be one of it’s top values and arrogance, my friends, does not jive too well with humility.
And what is humility? There are of course many definitions, but one I heard recently that particularly struck a chord with me defined humility as treating one’s strengths and weaknesses equally. Which implies that I should be grateful for my weaknesses.
That fucking Josh, he must be crazy.
I am no better and no worse than any other human being on this planet. Sure, I might try to tell myself I am, but there goes that arrogance again and when I’m arrogant, I need not look at my weaknesses, I need not see how I am who I am as a sum total of my strengths and my failings. I got to be where I am, after all, because I am an individual, self-reliant, self-sufficient. Like any good American.
And therein lies the irony, for as much as I employ “I” to refer not to myself, but in reference to the American emphasis on the individual, for those of you out there who have read my more recent posts on my current life condition, there is a truth to the irony and sarcasm, for I can say that my current life condition can be attributed to my arrogance, to my self-reliance, to looking only to my strengths as if I, by my own strength, could fix the family problem. And here I sit in my little room while my wife and kids live in a different home.
Hell no says the CEO to the homeless man–I am not equal to you.
I am not equal to you says the racist.
Says the misogynist to the woman.
Says the adult to the child.
Says the strong to the weak.
I can’t be happy if I look at my weaknesses. I can’t be happy if I identify as equal with those who are lower than I.
Service to Others: Now if I scoff at humility, I find service to others even more laughable.
Service, to others?
Are you kidding me?
No way, we in America are self-serving.
Because I can only be happy if I get what I want and unless you have something to give to me, or if I can’t get out of you want I want, then I won’t even bother.
Hyper-individualism, God bless us, and God bless America.
And yet when everyone is an individual and prides themselves in expressing their individuality, how individual are they?
iPad. iPod. iPhone.
Service decapitalizes the “I”. No wonder our society places little premium on giving of ourselves, giving up ourselves to help those less fortunate. After all, what happens to me when I am relativized to being lower case? What happens to me and my strengths and my identity as an individual when I have to humble myself in the service to another, and what am I going to get out of it?
Oh, my dear country, you make me promises, but the way you act and the values you promote do little in the way of ensuring those promises. In promising me, you guarantee me. You promise us all. Yet what you guarantee cannot give. You’ve broken your promises, yet you will never renege on them, of that I am sure. So what are you going to do, America, to come through on your promises for all of your citizens?
So dear reader, what do you think? Agree, disagree? Your own perspectives, experiences?