According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, almost 85% of Americans believe that they are very happy or at least happy. Eric Wilson uses this insight as a launching pad for his overwrought and simplistic analysis of American culture, contained in his book, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy.
Wilson writes: “I for one am afraid that our American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life…to desire happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic.”
In other words Wilson believes that the professed happiness of Americans is either a social concoction, a phoniness brought on by some type of social pressure, or a variation on an ‘eyes wide shut’ motif.
As an American who has traveled and lived in other countries, my perspective of American society is somewhat different than Wilson’s. I think American happiness is genuine, a product of a social and economic system that empowers people and nurtures that rarest and most fragile commodity—hope. My experience of living in social welfare states engenders just the opposite view: a society infected by a profound sense of stasis; a grey, begrudging outlook where the struggle has reduced primarily to preserving the status quo.
I am no Panglossian patriot. Personally I can be as gloomy and beset by a sense of weltschmerz as any existentialist or NPR radio host. Rather than wallow in it I prefer to get on with things and use such feelings to recover strength and redeem a sense of purpose. I also see clearly the risks and fallout that attend living in a society that places an emphasis on individual responsibility. But it is exactly those risks that provide the reward of happiness. The only way to eliminate all the ills of the world is to eliminate freedom, which we are well down the road to doing. When we do, human beings will most definitely not be happy. We’ll be bored.
The Wilsons of the world need to understand the difference between satisfaction, complacency, and happiness. You will be hard pressed to find the level of dynamic examination and debate about a country’s flaws, the ills of society, or an active concern for suffering, as is found in the United States, in any country in the world. Are Americans, nonetheless, happy? Yes because our political and economic system creates a natural interest in life. Anything can happen. In America you are never defeated until you are dead. One’s dreams, as attenuated as they may have become, are always in play.