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The happiness project 

Jeremy Lock

August is traditionally known as National Happiness Month. You’ve already missed a week of it, but there is still time to catch up.

The pursuit of happiness is one of our inalienable rights, along with life and liberty, and perhaps it is the most difficult. Only half of all Americans report being content with their lives, let alone happy, which puts the United States in sixteenth place on the international happiness index, way below the Scandinavian countries, but much higher than the Russians, Lebanese and Afghans, who (not surprisingly) seem to be uniformly miserable.

Defining something like national happiness is obviously difficult, verging on impossible. There is a whole industry devoted to measuring what is called, in the jargon of the trade, perceived quality of life. At least there is some consistency in their findings over time, which suggests that they must be measuring something. Happy nations tend to stay happy through good times and bad. Depressed nations stay depressed, no matter how many cable channels or happy meals they get. Money helps, but it’s far from being the only thing. America is always somewhere up in the top 20 but never close to being number one.

This is surprising because this is the only nation (apart from the tiny country to Bhutan) that has happiness written into one of its founding documents. At least the Founding Fathers were wise enough to specify the pursuit of happiness rather than happiness itself. If we are in pursuit of something, we don’t have it yet but can hope for it in the future.

However, this puts us in the rather ridiculous position of treating life now as a kind of prelude or prequel to the moment when the pursuit of happiness will pay off like a lucky lottery ticket. As a result, we live too much in the future. The first Christmas catalogues arrive in the mailbox in August, and the supermarkets begin displaying Halloween candy in the first week of September. One day soon, commercial greed will run so far ahead of the calendar that we will be happily celebrating next Christmas in February.

Since 1776, Americans have invested a lot of energy in the pursuit of happiness. Just about everything has been tried: baseball, war, cars with tail fins, lawn care, love, rock music, alcohol, illegal drugs and giant hamburgers with pickles and fries. Nothing seemed quite to do the trick. The general assumption has been that bigger equals better equals happier: bigger cars, houses, bank balances, martinis and so on. But even this simple principle cannot be relied upon. Not all billionaires are filled with joy.

The problem is that we don’t quite know what “happiness” means, although we know it when we feel it. But the rest of the world thinks it does know. Millions of refugees focus their hopes and dreams on the United States on the assumption that it is the happiest and best place on earth to live because we have so many good things, including, at least for the moment, a stable democratic government.

Are they wrong? Russia and Afghanistan don’t have a National Pursuit of Happiness Month or even a National Pursuit of Happiness five minutes. Perhaps we should look at the big picture and be happy with what we have.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.