07/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What's With This Happiness Thing?

It seems like everyone is talking about happiness.

There is the feature story in the current issue of The Atlantic ("What Makes Up Happy"), describing a 72-year longitudinal study of Harvard men and their search for "a happy life" ( And here comes "The Happiness Project," a personal quest, turned blog, turned memoir, by one determined young woman to test every theory of happiness ever expounded ( And how about, "Happiness Now," an 8-week program designed by a British Shrink? Do we think that works? The list goes on: no fewer than 386,032 books are on Amazon with "happiness" in the title; not to mention the 77 million Google entries on the same subject.

What's this about? Are we more preoccupied with the idea of happiness because it is more elusive? Or do we simply have higher expectations than ever before? Did the bottom falling out of the economy make us reconsider our priorities? Is happiness the new way we keep score?

Boomers, more than preceding generations, have thought of happiness as an entitlement. Whereas our parents saw it as a possibility, we saw it as our birthright--a belief that somehow, a perpetual state of joy (or near bliss) was accessible if only we played our cards right. And we did try nearly everything from recreational drugs to consciousness-raising to EST and Transcendental Meditation to psychiatry and serious pharmaceuticals. We pursued happiness religiously for ourselves, and worried through every developmental stage for our kids. It is the rare boomer who is passive about their own pursuit of happiness, and the unusual parent who doesn't try to ameliorate what looks like unhappiness in their child.
Maybe we are all nuts.

Jeff: I'm convinced that we really used to believe that we were only a few purchases away from happiness. Or that another couple of zeroes on our bank balance would make all the difference. And if this purchase didn't make us light up, well, the next one was surely the missing piece in our happiness puzzle. In other words, for so many of us, happiness was inextricably linked to prosperity.

Paula: Yes, but the generation that invented Retail Therapy also somewhere knew that money doesn't buy happiness. There has always been a kind of paradox on that subject. It is as though we know that consumer goals are not the most important human goals, but, at least, they were clearly defined.

Jeff: A much easier game than the confusing and even painful process of delineating complex personal goals and growth.

Paula: So, you think that this current focus on happiness is a direct reaction to these tough economic times?

Jeff: Absolutely. I think that we were in the habit of using consumer goals, as un-nuanced as they are, as a stand-in for life goals and that in this environment where we feel the "store door" closing on us, perhaps forever, we are in a bit of a quandary.

Paula: Right. Because the belief that we should be happy all the time is still there.

We seem to have lost sight of the fact the "pursuit of happiness"--not happiness per se, is our constitutionally guaranteed entitlement. Apparently it was a matter of some debate among the founding fathers as to whether the phrase in the Declaration of Independence should read "life, liberty and happiness" or if the pursuit itself was the protected right. It is of more than passing interest to consider why the latter became the accepted phrase.

The debate might have been quite like our own. For some, the intention was to reflect the thinking of John Locke, that the role of government was to protect life, liberty and property for its citizens. For Locke, there was equivalency between happiness and wealth. For others, however, the issue was more complex. For them, happiness was a rich soup of ideas, opportunities, family and community all seasoned by personal taste.

If the current preoccupation with happiness was occasioned by economic turmoil (which in some measure came about through pre-occupation with property), then maybe it's time to consider other aspects of happiness. Can we look beyond the simplicity of consumer purchases to determine a deeper source of happiness? Can we develop our personal and community goals with the same zeal with which we honed our consumer goals?

Our hunch is that we can, and we will. It is not the commitment to personal happiness that is necessarily flawed. It was the one-dimensional way in which we pursued it. We are not the first to point out that there may be a happiness bonus in this recession. And perhaps the level of noise on the subject of happiness is a very healthy--and necessary--public debate on the softer side of recovery.

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