I recently re-read a blog post I had saved from a few years ago about the American pursuit of happiness. Ruth Whippman, who is English but living in the U.S., notes that the achievement of happiness is particularly prized here:

“Happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A vicious trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship and even love.”

Some try to flaunt their success via material accumulation or conspicuous consumption. However, it is quite a challenge to accumulate resources sufficient to induce envy in others. For those of modest means and shabby circumstances, there is an alternative way to compete in the successful-life sweepstakes. Simply asserting “I’m happy” is the lazy person’s strategy to quell doubts  that he or she has in fact achieved the good life.

Ruth Whippman

Ruth Whippman

Whippman notes there is a considerable difference in approaches to happiness in UK and the US:

“Cynicism is the British shtick. When happiness does come our way, it is entirely without effort, as unmeritocratic as a hereditary peerage. By contrast, in America, happiness is work. Intense, nail-biting work, slogged out in motivational seminars and therapy sessions, meditation retreats and airport bookstores. For the left there’s yoga, for the right, there’s Jesus. For no one is there respite.”

Wippman notes that “The people taking part in ‘happiness pursuits,’ as a rule, don’t seem very happy.” Indeed, despite the assiduous efforts of many Americans to become more happy, surveys haven’t shown increases in happiness over the past 40 years. What’s the problem? Why aren’t we doing better at bolstering our happiness stores?

One answer is suggested by the epigraph to Whippman’s post, a quote by Eric Hoffer: “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” Wippman suggests that “The American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety.” She thinks such anxiety may result from constantly wondering whether we are happy enough. Specifically, we’re likely to fret that our happiness doesn’t measure up to that of others. What if my hard work to be happy doesn’t make me as happy as someone who isn’t even trying?

I suspect that there are additional ways in which the pursuit of happiness increases anxiety. One of these is that we mistake the right to pursue happiness with an obligation to do so. This seems to be a bigger temptation for secular America than religious America. Among the secularists, life typically centers on furthering one’s interests and constructing the most balanced and complete life one can. What better reflects success at these self-enhancement projects than a sense of well-being or happiness? And, if happiness is absent, doesn’t that mean that one is not doing life right? In much of the world, unhappy people readily shrug their shoulders, point to circumstances that impede good cheer, and turn their attention to something else. Americans, in contrast, are expected to get to work clearing the path that will lead to felicity. We owe it to ourselves, the thinking goes.

So, the American troubled by unhappiness sets out to rectify things–but how to proceed? The American anxious to drive along the highway to happiness finds the signs along the route to be confusing, contradictory, or downright peculiar. Whippman notes the odd offerings posted on a message board in the California cafe where she was writing–Maum Meditation, TransDance, Chod Training and wolf colostrum. Will any of those really gain us life satisfaction?

Indeed, the road to happiness isn’t as direct as we might hope. When I drive from North Carolina to St. Louis, I won’t find signs for St. Louis right away. Instead, I have to head for other places–Sanford, then Winston-Salem, then Wytheville, and on and on, until, the journey mostly completed, I finally spot a sign for St. Louis. Similarly, I’m only likely to reach happiness if I forget about happiness and instead head for more proximate destinations first.

There are some good guides for where to head first on this journey, including Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness, which suggests such activities as forgiving, nurturing relationships, and expressing gratitude. Another favorite of mine is David K. Naugle’s Reordered Loves, Reordered Lives, on the ordering of the affections. Following the advice of these authors may make us happy eventually, but will probably first make us better people. We might even gain the maturity to regard any happiness that results not as something we earned but as a gift. Then perhaps we could stop striving to be more happy and enjoy whatever measure of happiness we receive.