Has America's pursuit of growth and ever-greater material abundance brought true happiness and satisfaction in life?
Happiness is a complicated subject. Almost everyone wants to be happy and lead a life of genuine satisfaction. Yet many major works of art and literature and many of the deepest insights have in fact been products of unhappy, even tormented minds. Moreover, happiness can and does have many meanings. Concepts of happiness range all the way from a shallow, hedonistic pursuit of instant gratification to the Buddhist emphasis on finding happiness in recognizing the futility of striving and in the movement beyond self to compassion. Most of the great philosophers from antiquity forward have wrestled with happiness. What are the wellsprings of true happiness? Where does happiness fit into the pantheon of goals worthy of our species?
Darrin McMahon, in his wonderful book Happiness: A History, traces these questions down through the centuries. McMahon finds the origins of the "right to happiness" in the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, he writes, sought "to create space of happiness on earth. To dance, to sing, to enjoy our food, to revel in our bodies and the company of others—in short, to delight in a world of our own making—was not to defy God's will but to live as nature had intended. This was our earthly purpose. . . . 'Does not everyone have a right to happiness?' asked . . . the entry on that subject in the French encyclopedia edited by Denis Diderot. Judged by the standards of the preceding millennium and a half, the question was extraordinary: a right to happiness? And yet it was posed rhetorically, in full confidence of the nodding assent of enlightened minds."!
It was in 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence, that Jeremy Bentham would write his famous principle of utility: "It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong."
Thus, when Thomas Jefferson drafted the declaration in June i776, the words "the pursuit of happiness" came naturally to him, and the language sailed through the debates of June and July without dissent. McMahon believes this lack of controversy stemmed in part from the fact that the "pursuit of happiness" phrase combined ambiguously two very different notions: the idea from John Locke and Jeremy Bentham that happiness was the pursuit of personal pleasure and the older Stoic idea that happiness derived from active devotion to the public good and from civic virtue, which have little to do with personal pleasure.
"The 'pursuit of happiness,'" McMahon writes, "was launched in different, and potentially conflicting, directions from the start, with private pleasure and public welfare coexisting in the same phrase. For Jefferson, so quintessentially in this respect a man of the Enlightenment, the coexistence was not a problem." But Jefferson's formula almost immediately lost its double meaning, in practice, McMahon notes, and the right of citizens to pursue their personal interests and joy won out. This victory was confirmed by waves of immigrants to America's shores, for whom America was truly the land of opportunity. "To pursue happiness in such a land was quite rightly to pursue prosperity, to pursue pleasure, to pursue wealth."2
It is in this jettisoning of the civic virtue concept of happiness in favor of the self-gratification side that McMahon finds the link between the pursuit of happiness and the rise of American capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Happiness, he writes, "continued to entice with attractive force, providing a justification for work and sacrifice, a basis for meaning and hope that only loomed larger on the horizon of Western democracies." Daniel Bell, McMahon notes, described the monumental transformation that occurred: "the shift from production to consumption as the fulcrum of capitalism" that brought "luxury to the masses" and made "marketing and hedonism . . . motor forces of capitalism." "If economic growth was now a secular religion," McMahon observes, "the pursuit of happiness remained its central creed, with greater opportunities than ever before to pursue pleasure in comfort and things."3 Max Weber saw this transformation firsthand. "Material goods," he observed in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, "have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history."4
The story of the pursuit of happiness in America is thus a story of its close alliance with capitalism and consumerism. But in recent years, many researchers have begun to see this relationship as one of misplaced allegiance. Has the pursuit of happiness through growth in material abundance and possessions actually brought Americans happiness? That is a question more for science than for philosophy, and the good news is that social scientists have in fact recently turned abundantly to the subject/ A new field, positive psychology, the study of happiness and subjective well-being, has been invented, and there is now even a professional Journal of Happiness Studies.6
Why is this outpouring of happiness studies "good news"? Imagine, if you will, two very different alternatives for affluent societies. In one, economic growth, prosperity, and affluence bring steadily increasing human happiness, well-being, and satisfaction. In a second, prosperity and happiness are not correlated, and indeed, prosperity, beyond a certain point, is associated with the growth of important social pa-
128 great transformation thologies. If the first scenario more closely resembles reality, then the possibility of sustaining the environment by confronting capitalism, growth, and consumption is powerfully constrained. Sustaining the environment would be at odds with the march of human happiness. On the other hand, if the second scenario provides the better fit to reality, then there are well-founded grounds for hope, for in that case sustaining the environment and the pursuit of happiness are not at odds.
So what the social scientists in this new field are telling us is of fundamental importance. Let us turn now to their findings. Two of the leaders in the field, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, reviewed the now-voluminous literature on well-being in their 2004 article, "Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-Being."7 In what follows, I draw on this article, supplementing it with other research.
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