Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Essays

The Unhappiness of Happiness

We may have hope—but that’s not a synonym for happiness.

William M. Chace

Hoarding (detail) by Eugenia Loli, courtesy of the artist.

As La Rochefoucauld said, “There is something in the misfortunes of our friends that does not displease us.”

Curio · The Hedgehog Review | The Unhappiness of Happiness

In 1763, young Thomas Jefferson wrote a College of William and Mary classmate about being rejected by a woman on whom he had set his hopes: “Perfect happiness, I believe, was never intended by the Deity to be the lot of one of his creatures in this world; but that he has very much put in our power the nearness of our approaches to it, is what I have steadfastly believed.”11x“From Thomas Jefferson to John Page, 15 July 1763,” Founders Online, National Archives, Accessed April 22, 2016. That happiness was not guaranteed, but could be sought, was part of Jefferson’s credo, not only when he was a romantically inclined youth but when he was a middle-aged man who, having read John Locke (“life, liberty, and estate”), envisioned the nation whose principles he was helping to form. Thus, in 1776 he could write, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

That sentence in the Declaration of Independence, particularly the word “pursuit,” fixes happiness near the center of this nation’s self-understanding. While he didn’t say that our happiness is guaranteed—the hopeful Jefferson was not the foolish Jefferson—his words imply that happiness is part of our patrimony. Without it, we would be less than we can or must be; with it, we confirm ourselves as citizens of the Republic.

Jefferson’s words pose fundamental questions for us today. First, to what extent has his envisioning of a “right” to pursue happiness been realized? Or, more simply, how happy are we as Americans? Second, does the “right” he proclaimed conflict with other principles on which a democratic society could be founded; what, if anything, gets shouldered aside as we seek individual freedom? In short, did Jefferson unwittingly bequeath us a vision of happiness that could, alas, never be fulfilled?

As for the first question, that of our present happiness, an answer is at hand in the form of the 2015 World Happiness Report, published annually since 2012 by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The report includes findings on how often respondents around the globe smile or laugh, enjoy their surroundings, feel safe at night, and are well rested and interested in things around them. Survey participants are also asked about the degree to which they experience anger, worry, sadness, depression, stress, and pain. The UN integrates into its findings six markers—GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption—that represent external factors affecting happiness in country after country.22xWorld Happiness Report 2015, eds. John Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, United Nations,

How does the United States fare? Among the 158 nations surveyed for the 2015 World Happiness Report, it took fifteenth place, between Mexico and Brazil. The top-ranked country was Switzerland (see box for top twenty happiest and the bottom ten).


Judged by that one crude gauge, that is how happy we are. Not as happy as we might want to be, nor as happy as Jefferson might have imagined we could be, but hardly miserable. By way of comparison, the United Kingdom (21), Germany (26), France (29), and Italy (50), countries to which many Americans can trace their ancestry, did not do as well as the United States. And countries that have become new sources of immigrants to our country did much worse: China (84), Vietnam (75), and India (117). While the survey results may seem disheartening when we compare our place in the standings to that of the Scandinavian nations and our neighbor Canada, fifteenth place actually makes sense. We are a large, complex, multiracial, ambitious, very rich and very poor, and immensely powerful nation with far-flung international commitments. Our past was turbulent; our future will likely be turbulent; our present is marked by ideological distrust and animosity. Are we not, then, just about where we should be, between Mexico and Brazil—two other large countries, also unruly, also rich and poor, also complex and heterogeneous? Have we not gone about as far as we can go? Perhaps Jefferson might today be disappointed, and would say that we should have done better and that our government, our elected leaders, should have shown us how.

As to the second question: Is there something in our disposition, as Americans and as human beings, that makes happiness an elusive and ultimately frustrating goal? The answer pushes us into complicated territory. Happiness is not always what it seems to be. One way to understand it is to distinguish it from something it resembles. Daniel Kahneman and other social scientists distinguish our assessment of our “emotional well-being,” or “happiness,” from our “life evaluation.” The first measures the features characterizing our everyday experience—“How do you feel?” The second measures the ways we describe our lives when we set our minds to doing so—“So what has this all meant?” These are two very different measures, the first a disclosure keyed to present circumstances, the second a “stock-taking” that sums up the full value and meaning of one’s life. Think of the first as a daily report on “happiness,” the second as an existential finding about one’s “satisfaction.” This distinction makes happiness hard to define and measure.

For instance, when Kahneman, joined by his Princeton colleague (and fellow Nobel laureate) Angus Deaton, analyzed the responses of 450,000 Americans polled in 2008 and 2009 about personal income, they found that annual income greater than $75,000 had less and less to do with personal happiness, though more income did have a positive effect on respondents’ “existential summary,” as manifested in a greater likelihood that they would say that their lives and careers had gone well. Money gave diminishing returns in the realm of happiness, but the opposite was true in the realm of satisfaction.33x“High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010 107 (38) 16489–16493; published ahead of print September 7, 2010, doi:10.1073/pnas.1011492107. Another way of putting this is to say that while happiness and money part ways after a while, satisfaction and money grow closer as long as the money increases. Nonetheless, while money may be bereft of intrinsic value for many people, it’s an excellent way for them to “keep score.”

Another social scientist, Richard A. Easterlin, a University of Southern California economist, observes that increased wealth counts for a lot when people are young, but for less as they get older:

Even though rising income means that people can have more goods, the favorable effect of this on welfare is erased by the fact that people want more as they progress through the life cycle. It seems as though Emerson (1860) had it right when he said “Want is a growing giant whom the coat of Have was never large enough to cover.”44xRichard A. Easterlin, “Income and Happiness: Towards a Unified Theory,” The Economic Journal 111, July 2001, 465–84,

So when our parents told us that money wouldn’t buy happiness, they were right. For that and other reasons, Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University, believes that government should leave happiness alone. In The Politics of Happiness, a good deal of his attention is focused on one alleged source of happiness—GDP per capita. He argues that constant efforts to raise such a standard are wasted. If Americans don’t wind up happy with more money, Bok asks, “why are we working such long hours to keep on doubling and redoubling our Gross Domestic Product?”55xDerek Bok, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-being (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 63. Why should government work to increase something that money, or federal allocations, can’t increase? Why not cast aside the desire to increase economic growth?

Bok supports his cool look at his fellow Americans by observing that they don’t “always understand what will give them lasting satisfaction and consequently fail to act accordingly.” They simply want more—of everything, whatever it may be. Government leaders, says Bok, “will have a hard time making people happier so long as Americans lack a clearer understanding of the kinds of activities that will bring them lasting satisfaction.”66xIbid., 76. What social scientists call the “hedonic treadmill” keeps people lusting after material advantages that, once possessed, leave them no happier than before but only avid for more. This feature of humankind was described long ago in Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621): “A true saying it is, Desire hath no rest, is infinite in itself, endless, and as one calls it, a perpetual rack, or horse-mill.” So why would we want the government to pursue the wrong answer to a good question—the question of happiness?

But recall that the World Happiness Report addresses several factors in addition to GDP per capita: enjoyment, feeling safe at night, feeling well rested, and feeling interested. Anger, worry, sadness, depression, stress, and pain are also part of the picture. To the mix, the UN report adds life expectancy, social support, freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption, all of which are bundled under the rubrics of “present circumstances” and “stock-taking.”

Bok and others may well be right about money. But what about those other factors? We might draw little long-lasting happiness from more money and better washing machines (“property”), but who would not want to lessen sadness, pain, corruption, and anger? Who would belittle “feeling interested”? Surely there is more to life than $75,000 a year. Cornell professor of economics and management Robert H. Frank shrewdly says that instead of acquiring more material goods, we might better invest in “certain inconspicuous goods—such as freedom from a long commute,” and devote more time “to family and friends, to exercise, sleep, travel, and other restorative activities.”77xRobert H. Frank, “How Not to Buy Happiness,” Daedalus, Spring 2004, Better to buy time than to buy things.

If we consider all such “goods” as germane to happiness, we can again ask (on Jefferson’s behalf): What role, if any, has our government in promoting such features of a well-spent life? And if it does have such a role, just what is it? As we can see, probing this question leads one further and further into a web of complexities.

Here is one such complexity: If the “hedonic treadmill” complicates an understanding of happiness, so does the “paradox,” a concept formulated by Easterlin that tells us that rich people tend to be happier than poor people in a given society (easy to understand), but that when that society as a whole gets richer, its people don’t get happier (somewhat harder to understand, but the “hedonic treadmill” gives a clue).88xEasterlin, “Income and Happiness.” Since 1974, when Easterlin put forward this finding, this puzzle has given his fellow economists much to disagree about. Enriching and further complicating their discussion is something else that many other economists have observed about human nature: What makes some people happy indeed is perceiving themselves as happier than their neighbors. For such people, it is not that they have more this year than last year; what is important is relative income, how much more they have at any given time than their fellow citizens. In the United States, where gross inequalities of income, wealth, and power have become more starkly conspicuous with each passing year, opportunities abound for the advantaged to enjoy many invidious comparisons with the disadvantaged. And thus we return to the game of “keeping score.”

Such personal and class contentiousness has been tested by wickedly clever social scientists who like to ask questions such as “If you were to be given $10,000 and a friend $5,000, would that be better or worse than being given $20,000 if your friend were given $30,000?” Several experiments tell us that many people would prefer the first option. Better that my neighbor not wind up with more than me. Again, happiness does not always come from getting more; often it comes from preventing the pain that envy can bring. La Rochefoucauld knew this long ago when he said, “There is something in the misfortunes of our friends that does not displease us,” and Gore Vidal is often quoted as saying, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Government, any government, would have difficulty dealing with that knotty perversity of human nature. Emotions such as envy are territory immune to government intervention. Note again how tricky an understanding of “happiness” can be. It is hard to nail down because it fuses emotions that are attractive with emotions that are shabby.

An additional element of human nature gets in the way of understanding happiness and imagining ways government can increase it. Michael Eysenck and other social scientists describe a “set point” of psychological stability that each of us possesses, a fixture of personality giving us emotional constancy through the ups and downs of life. But only some of those ups and downs. Easterlin argues that the power of the set point works best with matters of money and material goods, but not well at all with what he calls the “non-pecuniary” aspects of life. Income, wealth, and property are one thing, divorce and disease another. Catastrophic illness or profound clinical depression can make it hard for the set point to function, with the result sometimes being years of suffering. Yet for someone who wins the lottery, the set point works all too quickly to melt away the newfound joy; what is ecstasy for two weeks winds up being a millstone for months or years. In being ignorant about what is best for us as human beings, says Easterlin, we “fail to anticipate the extent to which adaptation and social comparison undermine expected utility in the pecuniary domain.” And so those very same human beings go on to “allocate an excessive amount of time to pecuniary goals, and shortchange nonpecuniary ends such as family life and health, reducing their happiness.”99xRichard A. Easterlin, “Explaining Happiness,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 2003, 100 (19): 11176–83. Again, as both Derek Bok and Robert Frank have said, we simply do not know what is best for us, or even what happiness might be. Why would the American government, or any government at all, including the one envisioned by Jefferson, know more?

Keep in mind a central fact in our history: In taking direction for many years from Jefferson, we have made a choice—a choice with costs—rooted in a theory of government placing maximum emphasis on freedom and personal liberty, not on our responsibility to others. The right to act on the basis of individual freedom comes before the duty to store up mutual dependence and shared values. Our founding fathers saw the new nation as a construction in which liberty and individual property rights would be aligned. Risk to community might be high, for social capital would forever be at the mercy of private capital. The success of the new nation would be measured by the degree to which “property” or material possessions served as evidence of the triumphal “pursuit” of liberty. That would be the “cost,” one that would prove hard to repay. Selfish individualism would forever be waiting to shoulder aside the common good.

Consider also that since the earliest days of European colonization, we as Americans have set our sights high and have fed ourselves on the dream of a better world to come. That dream has been with us since 1630, when John Winthrop, aboard the Arbella, said of the land he saw before him, “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” We are meant to be “exceptional,” not like anyone else. Herman Melville gave voice to the same exalted vision in his novel White Jacket: “The future is endowed with such a life that it lives to us even in anticipation.… The future [is] the Bible of the free.… God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls.”

Such yearnings are at once seductive and dangerous. When we promise to ourselves as much as we do, sooner or later we wind up exposed to the sobering realities that inevitably bedevil most nations: internecine strife, economic and financial turmoil, suspicion of others, civic violence, and scandal in high places. Selfish dreams and the pleasures of individualism never go away. When they seize dominance in public attention, the disparity between the proclamation of our uniqueness and the evidence of our failings generates the enhanced unhappiness that GDP per capita and the successes of commercial life cannot salve.

With that conflict and that cost in mind, we should again ask: Does our national government nevertheless have an obligation to help us “pursue” or to “approach” happiness? Or is government largely to leave us alone? We can begin an answer in a simple form. Certainly, government has a responsibility to safeguard our lives by means of the armed forces and the police. Certainly, too, it should act, in principle, to guarantee each of us as much liberty as can be afforded, given the collateral duty to protect the liberty of everyone else. But as Jefferson would have it, government should go only so far. The limits of its power are summed up in his first inaugural address: “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.” Where the reach of the hand of government stops, the hand of the American people asserts command. Again, it is up to us, to us as individuals, to “pursue.”

We thus return to the question with which we started: What, then, is given to us, in our “pursuing” way, to do? Given that Jefferson’s words continue to dwell within our national aspirations, how do we, left to ourselves, act to gain happiness? Perhaps there is little we should reasonably expect or ask government to do in light of the peculiar and irremovable features of human personality. No government can tell us what is truly good for us, for that knowledge has to do with wisdom, not with money in the bank, a new car, or paid-up credit cards. For qualities of mind that would contribute to true happiness, qualities connected neither to pecuniary gain nor to envy, we can do no better than turn to John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography:

Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means but itself as an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else they find happiness by the way.1010xJohn Stuart Mill, Autobiography, Chapter 5, “Crisis in My Mental History, One Stage Onward,” Accessed April 22, 2016.

If we follow Mill, we get to happiness not by pursuing it, or at least not by pursuing it with only ourselves in mind. Leaving government behind, we should give ourselves to others.

In summary, while Jefferson proclaimed the right to “pursue” happiness, happiness is wrapped up in its elusiveness. A conflict resides in all of us: between the hope of happiness that rises unbidden in us and our ignorance of where happiness truly resides. We exist as organisms that experience happiness only as transitory, as beyond the influence of external forces to augment or prolong. Despite his best hopes, Jefferson’s goal turns out to be well beyond the means of any government to capture. What we imagine we can do, what we think we are free to “pursue,” meets head-on with what we, as human beings, happen to be. The poignant consequence of that tension gives us part of our identity; unfortunately, it also hollows out the core of that unalienable right. Yes, We the People are entitled to much, and can think ourselves free forever to “pursue,” but we are constrained by a leash that sets the scope of our pleasures while leaving ungoverned our desires.

Acknowledging such realities, however, need not be desolating. As Americans, we are still left with something else: hope. It is not a synonym for happiness. It looks not to property or fiscal well-being or GDP, but to a union of mutual dependence, empathy, and trust that can generate enhanced social capital. That asset, more powerful than naked individualism, is in short supply today. But we can set our minds, and arrange our hopes, to build more of it. The creativity of many of our people, the prestige of our established civic institutions, and the productive turbulence of our culture give us the grounds for such hope.

The World Happiness Report gives a formula for the civic action we need: We should devote ourselves to “raising awareness of social dilemmas, reducing social and economic inequalities, fostering a better understanding of public policy debates, raising individual skill levels, and creating an educated citizenry that can keep government in check.” The formula is two-fold: One change has to do with education (“awareness,” “better education,” and “educated citizenry”); the second change has to do with material transformation (“reducing inequality” and “raising skill levels”).1111xWorld Happiness Report 2015, 162.

Jeffrey Sachs, one of the UN report’s authors, sees the distance the United States needs to travel before it can recover the social capital it might have accumulated, but has lost, in recent decades. He argues, as this essay does, that we have allowed our “liberty” in the pursuit of property to erode our community values:

Sweden went from a high-conflict society to a high-trust society in the course of the twentieth century. By contrast, the US has experienced a sharp decline in measures of social capital since 1980, even as other societies have held their own in social capital and trust. Why has the US deteriorated? The answers seem to be related to a rapidly widening inequality of income, a shift of politics toward free-market libertarian approaches.1212xIbid., 160.

This is a disturbing indictment, but it does not close the door on American possibility. Perhaps our dreams have come to disappoint us, but they endure because they can inspire. Out of such inspiration and such hope can come a desire to generate even greater social capital, the only antidote to the rapacity of liberty linked to property. Let us accept the fact that happiness turns out to be elusive; let us acknowledge that human psychology holds happiness at arm’s length; let us recognize the distance between the world we inhabit and the world our self-exaltation gives us. But in the end there is no good reason to neglect steps—any steps—to cultivate the common good. That would be a philosophical attitude Jefferson just might welcome.