Chapter III: Is everybody happy?
Happiness is pursued, probably, more in America than anywhere else. Not that Americans are the happiest people necessarily--we shall say more on that later. Happiness is pursued, at least in part, because there is a cultural emphasis on being happy. An American is constantly reminded that he is supposed to be happy, that he has every reason to be happy, that perhaps it's his own fault if he's not happy, that the family next door, and the family in the magazine advertisement are always happy. Americans, then, are concerned--we might say--with the very word itself.
The word happiness has become part of the American way--it has become a test for an individual to administer to himself on all occasions: Am I happy? (1), he asks, over and over. And thus, to examine the nature of happiness in the United States, in 1949, we must concern ourselves not only with criteria which will satisfy the medical scientist and social scientist and the psychiatrist and the minister, but we must pay careful attention to the high cultural regard for being happy.
Americans are, in their own judgment, a very happy people. The Ladies' Home Journal asked people in the United States, Canada, Britain, Holland and France whether they were very happy, fairly happy, or unhappy. In the United States, 46% were "very happy", 45% "fairly happy", and only 8% "unhappy". But in France, on the other hand, only 9% were "very happy", 52% were "fairly happy" and 35% "unhappy".
But the Life Round Table on "The Pursuit of Happiness" (2), before whom these Ladies' Home Journal figures were presented was quick to point to other statistics and the stories behind them: divorce, juvenile delinquency, mental illness. Reflection for a moment on the kind of ghoulish events presented in soap operas, which have titles such as "Life Can Be Beautiful" immediately focuses on the very questionable use of 'beautiful' and 'happy'. Erich Fromm, in the Life Round Table, maintained that "there is always considerable pressure on the individual to persuade himself that he is 'happy' because this is part of the American pattern."
And so the evidence that Americans consider themselves happy is countered with the question "Are Americans really happy?" And to that, there is perhaps too resounding an answer in the negative. Russell Davenport, who wrote the report of the Life Round Table says that "the Table felt that there is a failure in America to achieve genuine happiness." The British author, J.S. Priestly, writes that "... the Americans ... should be leading happy lives, for they live in comparative security, with immense resources, a very happy standard of material comfort and convenience and with much to keep them entertained.... But I should not, at large, call them a happy people...." (3) Henry Luce, at the Round Table, felt that it was a paradox that "the very country in which the pursuit of happiness is asserted as a political right should be the one most often singled out as the place where happiness is least understood." (4) And Margaret Mead writes that "just as virtually no American family is completely certain of its social antecedents ... so also no American family is sure of its position on an unknown chart called 'happiness'. The mother anxiously scans her baby's face. Are his 'looks' something which should make her happy, is his health something which shows she is a good mother, does he walk and talk early enough to be a credit to her, to prove to others and so prove to herself that she has a right to be what she wants to be--happy?" (5) All of this forces us to ask three questions and to require as many answers. Question one: What criteria do Americans apply in deciding whether they're happy, and what things do they say make them happy? Question two: What "scientific" evaluational criteria can we apply in deciding whether an individual, or a nation is really happy? The two answers to these questions will lead naturally to a third question: How do the cultural criteria--the criteria we find applied by our letter writers-measure up against the "scientific" criteria? Naturally, we shall be unable to venture far, in generalizing, from the limited sample of our study, but perhaps our inquiry will succeed in illuminating a larger area.
The first question makes up the largest part of this study and is the concern of Chapters VII, VIII, IX. The second question--evaluational criteria for happiness--is discussed in Chapter X and in Appendix B. The last question cannot be asked before we see if the first two can be answered.
(1.) See Margaret Mead, And Keep Your Powder Dry, New York, William Morrow and Co., 1942, p. 87.
(2.) Russell W. Davenport, "Report of the Round Table on the Pursuit of Happiness", Life Magazine, July 12,--. Participants in the Round Table included Davenport (moderator), Erich Fromm, Stuart Chase, Sidney Hook, Henry Luce, Charles Luckman (Pres. Lever Brothers), Thomas D'arcy Brophy (advertising), Father Edmund A. Walsh, and others.
(3.) In What is Happiness, London, John Lane The Bodley Head, 1938.
(4.) op. cit., p. 97.
(5.) op. cit., p. 87.
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|Publication:||International journal of communication (Online)|
|Date:||May 15, 2012|
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