In 1776, when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he listed the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right, immediately after life and liberty. It is a little-known historical fact that Jefferson, John Adams and company also expected that the pursuit of happiness would someday include buying a Lexus and Hummer to share a three-car garage, a McMansion, a plasma television or three, and cosmetic surgery, from head to toe. With all that stuff, the Founding Fathers secretly theorized, Americans would be "really" happy.
It seems the Founding Fathers were wrong.
Not that the average American would want to trade places with folks in Darfur or Haiti or even Mexico, for it is truly hard to be happy when your children are starving. For the past half century, however, we in the United States have enjoyed a spasm of income growth, purchasing power and luxury unprecedented in human history, yet without the corresponding increase in feelings of content. Instead, for the past 50 years, we have lived on a happiness flatline, what prominent British economist Richard Layard calls a "plateau of happiness," a real and troubling disconnect between what we have and how we feel. (If it's any consolation, the Japanese are even less grateful, he says.)
It is that disconnect, that relative discontent, that has helped to inspire the recent groundswell of interest among social scientists, journalists and psychologists. Layard's criticalled acclaimed book, Happiness: Lessons From a New Science, was recently published in paperback, among the slew of titles on the topic to hit the bookstores in the past few years. (Another, Stumbling on Happiness, by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, has recently been inching its way up the bestseller lists.) "Positive Psychology" (the study of what makes people happy vs. what makes them depressed) is the hottest new trend in that field, while leading national journals have regularly weighed in on happiness and its associated conundrums.
Boiled down, the issues seem to be thus: Why haven’t we gotten happier as we’ve gotten richer? And if money can’t buy happiness, as our mothers always said, exactly where and how do we find it?
They are crucial questions, certainly, worthy of our finest minds, and they lead inevitably to, you’ll never guess – the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan. We meet the Bhutanese midway through Layard’s book, an isolated Himalayan people whose king, in 1998, decided the country’s objective would be Gross National Happiness. A laudable thing all around. The problem is, the king allowed television into his country for the first time the very next year.
“And so the Bhutanese could see the usual mixture of football, violence, sexual betrayal, consumer advertising, wrestling and the like,” Layard writes. “They lapped it up, but the impact on their society provides a remarkable natural experiment in how technological change can affect attitudes and behavior … Quite soon everyone noticed a sharp increase in family breakup, crime and drug-taking.”
In recent years, the Bhutanese government has been trying to get television, or at least the most odious programs, banned from the country. Good luck with that. But the misfortune of the king and his people is truly a story for our time. In most any intelligent discussion of what’s wrong with our society; of what stands between us and our bliss, television takes a terrible beating.
For starters, there is the steady diet of violence and soulless sex, dishonesty, betrayal and intrigue – that electronic smorgasbord from which we and our children continuously feast. Not that violence and soulless sex don’t happen in real life, but not nearly as frequently as television would make it seem. And now the data are clear: The more television we watch, the more desensitized, violent and debased we become.
“I don’t think television does much good,” Layard said in a recent telephone interview from his office in London. “It sort of elevates the glamour and attachment to success, and a lot of the people who are successful on television are not that nice. And advertising makes you feel that you need things you don’t really need. We all know one of the secrets of happiness is to be satisfied with what you have. I have done some research in the United States that shows the longer you watch television, the less happy you are.”
One simple solution: less tube, of course. Layard also suggests a greater investment in the things that really do make us happy – family and friends, meaningful work that we enjoy, community involvement, less getting and more giving.
“I think there will probably be some sort of spiritual revival or a revival of a greater sense of solidarity with other people,” says Layard. “These things go in swings and roundabouts. This has been one of the most ferociously individualistic periods, and I think we’ll start to see some backlash against that. The fact that people are reading these books shows that they’re disenchanted with the idea that the pursuit of private gain is going to make everybody have an enjoyable and meaningful life.”
Bowling is a team sport
Or maybe bowling’s the problem. Or maybe not bowling, per se, but renting a pair of shoes and a ball, and then tossing gutter balls all by yourself. Or maybe … OK. Let’t back up.
Six years ago, Harvard government professor Robert Putnam published a book called Bowling Alone, which Putnam summarized in a recent Time magazine essay.
"I argued that the fabric of American communities has frayed badly since the mid-1960s," Putnam wrote. "I traced plummeting memberships in PTAs, unions and clubs of all sorts, long-term declines in blood donations, card games and charity; and drops of 40 to 60 percent in dinner parties, civic meetings, family suppers, picnics, and yes, league bowling."
Putman's alarming conclusions in Bowling Alone were met pretty much like Al Gore's warnings about global warming, with silence or skepticism. But then, just last month, the American Sociological Review published a study in which 1,467 Americans were asked to describe all the people with whom they had recently discussed important matters. In a similar 1984 survey, we listed just three such close friends. Twenty years later, according to the study, that number had dropped to two.
Putnam tries not to gloat but now says the debate about the depths of our social isolation is over. We're lonely as heck, and as a result, "our children fail to thrive. Crime rises. Politics coarsens. Generosity shrivels. Death comes sooner," he wrote.
Like Layard, Putnam says television is largely to blame for this state of affairs.
"Television is not all bad in terms of social connectedness," Putnam said in a recent interview. "Watching the news is good for civic health. But most Americans don't watch the news. They watch Friends instead of having friends. Entertainment television is lethal for social connection because we watch alone. It's not that we enjoy television so much. It's just that it's so easy. You don't need to coordinate. You don't need to call. Click, and it's there."
But what about urban sprawl? Putnam says every 10 minutes of commuting time cuts social connection by 10 percent. What about our failure to account for the most drastic changes in the American Work force since the Industrial Revolution?
"Between 1960 and now, we've had a third of the American workers move from the kitchen to the office, but there's been no change at all in the structure of the workplace, in the way we design workdays and careers," Putnam said. "We're still operating with this Industrial Age image of how work and family are supposed to fit together. "We assume everybody works 9 to 5 and everybody has a wife at home, when almost no one has a wife at home. We need to make it possible for both men and women to reconcile their professional obligations with family and community obligations."
It would also help, Putnam says, if Americans finally take heed of our mothers.
"It's amazing what little effect material possessions have on happiness," Putnam says. "The data, the evidence, is hands-down. Money can buy you happiness, but not very much, and only if you're an Indian peasant. Nobody is going to be happier a year from now if they become a lot wealthier, but connections are very powerful. Family connections. Spouses. Friends."
Talk about a little-known historical fact.
This article also appeared in the July 30, 2006 edition of the Wisconsin State Journal.