There are a number of organizations that assess national happiness. There’s even a book, The Geography of Bliss, which examines different cultures and the general contentment of their population. Often the U.S. doesn’t score very high on happiness indexes, despite the fact that we’re the richest country in the world and so many people want to emigrate here. And often poorer countries score surprisingly high. What’s up with this?
I wonder how much U.S. culture, with its restlessness, its relentless focus on achievement, competition, keeping up with the Joneses, and the pursuit of success, diminishes our ability to be content. Despite what I wrote in part 1 and part 2 of these “Must we struggle” posts, I wonder whether this quintessential American quality – to strive for success – leads us to be perennially discontented. I don’t assume this quality is unique to Americans, as competition and striving for achievement are human characteristics. But in the U.S. we’ve turned them into an art form, and they have been cultivated by waves of courageous and achievement-oriented immigrants who chose to brave uncertain futures and grave difficulties to come to these shores and make a go at a new life. These immigrants then raised children to embody these qualities, too. Is it any wonder we are a striving, competitive, independent-minded nation?
As one of those people who has to do something to be content and can’t bear to laze around doing “nothing” I marvel and wonder at the joy and generosity among many who have little. Often the richest, most indulged people give, proportionally, the least, while those with few material possessions and no cushion for the future give, proportionally, the most. The strivers can become hoarders, living in seemingly unwarranted fear.
While I believe that we humans evolved to struggle for life and happiness to some degree, something has become skewed and out of sorts, and this last post serves to question the previous ones. Sometimes there does seem to be a level of serenity among those who have enough without a pernicious obsession with gaining more and more to keep up with an ever-escalating standard of success. Rather than complacency, does this serenity come from living more often in the present moment, pursuing needs instead of endless wants, and having time to live, play, and interact within loving communities?
But I wonder, would I be content with such a life? Would those of you raised, as I was, with hyper-competitive, success-oriented ideals, be content with such a life?
Please share your thoughts.
Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Claude and Medea, and Above All, Be Kind
Like our blog? Please share it with others, comment, and/or subscribe to our RSS feed.