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"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go."
"All the days of the afflicted are evil, but he that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast."
"Whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to shop."
Human beings have been puzzling over happiness and why it's so elusive since they first learned to puzzle. No wonder the riddles of contentment are these days inspiring noisy debate. Ours is a noisy time, but not a happy time — which is itself puzzling.
By any plausible standard, modern Americans are among the most fortunate human beings who ever lived — considering material bounty, medical marvels, and the relative decency of the prevailing political and social order. What's more, it should please decent human beings that around the world the past half-century or so has brought by far the most rapid improvement in living conditions for the largest portion of the planet's population in the whole history of the human race.
That we can be suffering a well-documented collective funk under these charmed circumstances — a "contagion of despair" thoughtfully diagnosed on Brink Lindsey's valuable blog "The Permanent Problem" — is itself evidence of the mysterious hungers of the human heart, which can be satisfied with meager fare and starved amid plenty.
Everywhere one turns nowadays, there is talk of a mental health crisis among teenagers and the middle aged — particularly among men but especially among women; a collapse of trust in institutions; a loss of legitimacy for democracy itself, and a deep estrangement between one American and another.
Naturally, the search is on for explanations. Such speculations, if often self-serving, are worth pondering if only because they unite our ahistorical generation with an ancient human tradition of wondering why, so often, as Ecclesiastes puts it, our "days are sorrows and our hearts taketh not rest in the night."
Inevitably, one prominent theory just now is political. A flurry of commentary has lately swirled around a 2022 study from Columbia epidemiologist Catherine Gimbrone and colleagues titled "The politics of depression." Its headline finding, amid plentiful reports of general psychological distress of young Americans, is that young liberals are more depressed than their conservative peers — consistent with many studies showing a similar pattern at all ages.
The politics of depression study also shows that youthful unhappiness began to rise sharply about a decade ago, first among liberal youths, but also among conservative kids a few years later.
In general, unsurprisingly, progressives (including the study authors) have responded to this data with variations on the theory that liberals are grim because they see the true injustice of society clearly, while conservatives are cheerful because they are privileged, and can find little fault with a sociopolitical order that favors themselves. Conservatives understandably take a different view, detecting in liberals a debilitating blend of native utopianism and thirst for martyrdom that puts serenity out of reach.
Each diagnosis may contain some truth. And the suspicious timing of the rise in dreariness — plus the fact that it occurred among conservatives and liberals alike — gives support to another increasingly widely shared idea. That's the concern, most energetically promoted by NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, that the caustic cultural climate change produced by social media may be a key environmental cause of Americans' gloom and bitter politics.
But there may be another possibility, rooted in an older psychological theory known as the "hedonic treadmill." This is the notion that most people have a temperamental baseline, a basic cast of mind shaped by some combination of genetics and early experience. Studies reportedly show that even after quite extreme positive or negative events — a life-changing windfall, or life-changing injury — most people return before long to something like the outlook on life they had before.
So maybe one's disposition shapes one's politics. Habitually sunlit minds, finding life agreeable, easily reach the conservative conclusion that the existing social order must be reasonably sound. Overcast souls seek reasons for their pain, and society's eternal flaws are natural suspects that cry out for progressive reform.
Another recent study is worth considering. In "Income and emotional well being: a conflict resolved," Mathew Killingsworth of the University of Pennsylvania, Daniel Kahneman of Princeton and colleagues essentially conclude that money indeed can buy happiness, but mainly for already happy people.
Using complex methods to resolve a contradiction between earlier studies, the researchers write that there exists "an unhappy minority" of people, and within that population "unhappiness diminishes with rising income" but only "up to a threshold [about $90,000 a year]." Above that, measures of contentment don't much change in this population no matter how rich individuals are.
Meanwhile, the researchers write, "in the happier majority, happiness continues to rise with income even in the high range." In short, the kind of people who are upbeat on modest incomes are even happier with obscene incomes. They have the sort of "continual feast" scripture promises because, apparently, in Stein's phrase, they know where to shop.
If each of us is stuck in a narrow emotional range, it may be some comfort to remember that it's nothing new. In their 2021 book "Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment," Furman University Profs. Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey explore the views on happiness of four French thinkers going back 500 years.
Michel de Montaigne, Blaise Pascal, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Alexis de Tocqueville disagreed about whether it was possible to find what Montaigne called "imminent contentment" — here and now satisfaction with ordinary life — as opposed to striving for transcendent enlightenment or heroic achievement.
Only Tocqueville saw America, in 1832, and he saw it as the first real-world experiment in a social order focused mainly on the average person's "pursuit of happiness."
And what did he find? "There is something surprising," he wrote In "Democracy in America," "in the strange unrest of so many happy men," the "disgust at life" of those who "easily attain a certain equality of condition, but … never … as much as they desire. They are near enough to see its charms, but too far off to enjoy them."
What's more, without the confining life paths shaped by family, class, church and place in old world societies, Americans were free to — but also required to — improvise their lives and define their own purposes. This was, Tocqueville noted, "a great additional stimulant" to "restlessness of temper" and Americans were "seen continually to change their track for fear of missing the shortest cut to happiness."
So is dissatisfied anxiety a fine old American tradition, or a rut we're still in after two centuries? Consult your temperament, and take your pick.