America is ideologically committed to happiness. Our very founding document specifies a right to its pursuit alongside self-governance and life itself. There are thousands of articles, cliché movie plots and sappy books about how it’s the ultimate individual goal. And of course it is. Of our three founding entitlements, happiness is the only one we aren’t born with.
Yet, we are evidently very poor at finding it. A disheartening study from last year revealed that only one third of the American population is “very happy.” If that metric for unhappiness doesn’t convince you that we have a problem, another estimate says that only about 17 percent of Americans can be called “completely mentally healthy,” a measure that constitutes both not having environmentally developed mental disorders (depression, anxiety, alcoholism, etc.) as well as being more or less content with one’s level of happiness. Unable to see why that has become such a rare case, we settle to call happiness “elusive.”
We, as individuals, come to believe that too, because while our desire for happiness is strong, our conception of it is unclear. That conception, whatever it might turn out to be, is highly personal. So in looking to articles for ways to find happiness, we feel no closer to our goal. If we as readers don’t know what happiness means to us, authors certainly won’t.
The conclusion that many then come to is that happiness is rare, only to be found by certain successful individuals. This view causes people to feel alone in their search, a perception that, I argue, is toxic for America. Furthermore, reporting on the subject, which is largely responsible for this perception, is failing the country.
While that is very statistically clear, Americans go about their daily lives as if there isn’t a problem. So, before I progress, I want to sincerely ask you, the reader, to be honest about your emotional state if only for the few minutes it takes to get through the rest of this column. No doubt this can be very difficult; we are predisposed to distance ourselves from negative emotion, especially weighty ones like misery because they seem to imply some personal lack of stability or resilience.
However, according to psychologist Kristin D. Neff in “Compassion and Wisdom in Psychotherapy,” emotional openness is crucial to happiness. Contrarily, an opportunistic view of happiness will cause you to fiercely protect any thought of it, avoiding negativity like the plague. When you only entertain positive thoughts, it’s impossible to determine if you actually are happy. Moreover, you can’t plan to achieve lasting happiness if you can’t admit even momentarily that you don’t have it. You simply won’t know what you’re missing.
We’re not immune to this issue at Stanford. Even if you are personally happy, it is statistically certain that there are people you care about who are not. However, because our culture enables a denial state for those who are truly unhappy (as in lasting sadness, not unhappiness from mere annoyances or to-do list items), you may never know — that is, unless our narrative changes and makes some healthy, necessary negativity acceptable.
With that, I’ll return to my original claim: that the prevailing view of finding happiness is dysfunctional. Its central problem is the premise that happiness is solely an individual pursuit. While it’s certainly something that everyone must personally define, actually reaching it or having the motivation to find it requires strong communal support. Without that, finding happiness becomes a daunting task, especially when so many people seem to be unable to do it.
There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that this perceived lack of support is limiting our ability to achieve well-being. In recent years, there has been a sharp, recent drop in American happiness, which the cited report makes clear “is a social crisis, not an economic crisis.” Indicators of this among Americans include “declining social social trust,” especially for the rich, the government and business. Still other reports indicate intense disdain for average citizens with whom participants disagreed. Overall, people are losing faith in their fellow citizens and have been “for decades,” according to the World Happiness Report.
Moreover, the complete internalization of the search for happiness becomes even more problematic when the country’s largest health crises are also largely internal. A previous column of mine discusses the immense magnitude of mental health illness in America, which is a well documented obstacle to happiness but far too often a wholly personal battle. Alongside that is the growing obesity crisis; its associated suffering is a primary reason people can’t escape it. Both of the widespread problems already make people feel alone, different from others and unable to break free from the central issue that makes them unhappy. Consequently, we need much greater social support to resolve them. A overly individualistic approach to happiness, which is a large factor in both crises, will only make things worse.
Additionally, a good deal of reporting on the issue focuses on telling people what they need to do in order to be happy. Of course that data isn’t simply made up, and I’m not saying that it isn’t beneficial. However, our society has become so individual that the search for happiness, if we even allow ourselves to begin it, feels unconquerable. Simply knowing what ought to make you happy isn’t enough. It takes a strong, supporting community to consistently do the things that are found to promote well-being.
We need to reverse America’s collective reclusion if we really care about happiness. While talk of doing so is “nowhere to be seen in the U.S. political debate,” you can do something about it within your own community. It starts with a clear, communal effort to ensure well-being all around. Reach out to those you live with and try to understand where they’re at in the process of finding happiness. Many people, you will find, have no idea where to even begin. Perhaps you’ll even discover that you’re not nearly as happy as you’d like to be. Together, however, you can work towards something beautiful.
Contact Noah Louis-Ferdinand at nlouisfe ‘at’ stanford.edu.