Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Is It Worth It? The Struggle for Happiness

This is so true.

I wasn't surprised by much of it--I've heard most of the studies before.

Of course, Americans aren't going to change. I'm sure anyone under the age of 23 watching the segment was halfway into packing their bags as soon as they heard that student loans don't exist--forget about paid paternity leave, 6 week vacations and 37-hour workweeks--but I knew better. It's the taxes that are gonna get you, buddy, and very few Americans would ever concede to paying almost half their salary in taxes. We like our money too much. We like our stuff too much.

There’s a fundamental difference in attitudes between those that are “happy”–and happiness scales usually mean contentment, because happiness in its everyday form is not the rush of jubilation, but of steady smiles–and those that are working towards being happy. Americans are always striving to be the best. In fact, we can argue that not only is this embedded into our culture, but that today’s youth has made it a default. We deride people who aren’t striving, who are aimless, unsure of their future. It’s been said many times, especially in articles discussing the power of the youth vote in this election, that “we know where we want to go”, that “we’re all just trying to make it happen”. Everything in our lives is so stressful. We all look back fondly on college, ignoring all those nights where we had freakouts and panic attacks over a paper, midterm, or a nasty fight with a friend. Getting into college, at least among the middle and upper-middle class, is one giant huckster hunt, constantly trying to prove why you are so great. We're already outstanding before we've had the opportunity to have done anything. That doesn’t change once school is over, either: especially in this transparent day and age, we have to work hard to make sure we live up to our image, that we approve of our image, and that we have the resume to back up those assertions.

"Happiness is the result of low expectations."

There are some that would jump at that statement, saying you always have to try for better, you never know what you can achieve, go for your dreams, all the inspirational stuff that American Idol winners sing about. Maybe. But, while not discrediting that notion, I’ve always thought about, in a realistic fashion, that sometimes low expectations are good, because if something exceeds them, you’re happier. But this isn’t something you can just magically do–you cannot go from one day praying for that raise or that A without some sort of change of heart. We are conditioned to strive, and as such we’ve cracked under the pressure, becoming a nation of strivers, of anxiety-ridden Zoloft-taking power-hungry emo fameseekers. Our culture conditions us to it. Although Into the Wild, both the movie and the book, take place in the early ‘90s, Christopher McCandless’ story could just as easily be set now. His story speaks to so many people because dropping out of the prevailing culture and testing the limits of survival with nature is so at odds with modern living. It’s an incredibly scary, incredibly liberating concept, a fantasy that in many ways is more attainable than all the riches we’re after. The same concept prevails in edutainments like Man vs. Wild and many programs on Discovery and National Geographic, that of living in a different, realer world, learning how to adapt, dealing with an authentic type of stress, one that matters. The fact that it was true also lends it that otherworldly aura. For once we’re in the rat race, leaving it seems impossible, because you can’t go back, and few people are ready or willing to jump out.

“Wanting it all is a bacterium that stays with us from youth to old age.”

Ah, power. Americans are always the best, we can do everything and anything. Just look at our foreign policy. Hell, the women’s movement today just seems to be synonymous with dismantling the ideal of “having it all.” We all know we can’t have it all, no matter how hard we try. No matter what you do, you want more, yet still we manage to persist that if we just try harder, work a little faster, smarter, better, we’ll get it.

And then we’ll find something else to strive for.

We look to the day when we can have power. We’re the boss, the king of the castle, queen of the road. But power can cause unhappiness–after all, there’s always someone out there trying to usurp it, using the powerful for something.

Should we downscale ambition? Tailor it so that it’s less about winning? But whether it’s weight loss or running a marathon, it’s inherit in us that we try to do well, and then our culture comes and makes us want to be the best, or at least the best that we can attain.

Studies have shown (forgive me, I would link if I could) that money and happiness only correlate to a certain degree; that is, once a standard of living is met, the increase in wealth has no bearing on happiness. You get used to the stuff you can now buy; if anything, this can cause more stress because now there is a house to look after, a fancier car that requires more maintenance, an expensive electronic that cannot get scratched. Worries multiply, and downscaling is not an option. Again comes that feeling of it being impossible to go back.

“We can’t have it all, but we can have a lot.”

“There’s a grandness to it,” one of the Danes says about America, but he adds that he wouldn’t want his kids to live there. So many Americans dream of grand lives, of things done, goals accomplished. It’s why writing out lists of life goals has become popular. But striving always has disappointment attached to it; yet instead we are buoyed by the fact that Abraham Lincoln failed many times before he became a great president. But remember, guys–he was miserable. Then there’s the corollary that to be great must equal a lot of pain and hardship. Everyone can easily list examples of how this thinking has become practically gospel.

It is amusing to hear in the video that Danes would say, if hearing they were #20 on a list, that that would be pretty good, it’s within the top 25. American articles are always bemoaning the fact that we are so far below the rest of the world in clean energy, in math and science scores, in healthy living...we would never ever flip that assessment around like the Danes. We’ve gotta be on top, we have to win. But like everything in life, winning–whatever that means–is about tradeoffs, and too many of us realize we don’t like the life we are truly living. We watch Into the Wild, we contemplate our existence, maybe we feel inspired, but then we get distracted by a new commercial and the feeling goes away, only to be replaced by the next inspirational entertainment.

(Man, this makes me want to reread my DeTocqueville.)

1 comment:

Emily said...

This is a GREAT post. It may be your best so far! This is my favorite line:
"We are conditioned to strive, and as such we’ve cracked under the pressure, becoming a nation of strivers, of anxiety-ridden Zoloft-taking power-hungry emo fameseekers."

This has definitely gotten me thinking quite a lot...the Big Question I have is...who the hell am are we all trying to impress? Our parents? Bosses? Ourselves? America?