American melancholy: happiness is an abstract notion

The confusion between happiness and pleasure

When I read that research by the Smithsonian in 2020 found that we’re living in ‘historically unhappy times’, I rubbed my sceptical chin, like the ‘thinking’ emoji and decided to do a little bit of unpicking. First off, ‘2020’. Did anything happen during that year that might have affected our happiness? (By the way, this survey covers Americans only). Hmmm… 2020?… Rings a bell… Oh yes! There was a worldwide pandemic that meant we all had to stay in our homes, socially distance and miss out on things like parties, movies, concerts, sporting events, and many other activities that tend to make us happy.

That aside, there may still have been an increased level of American melancholy around that time. For example, there’s plenty of research that suggests time spent on social media does not help with happiness.

Theodore Roosevelt once pointed out that ‘comparison is the thief of joy’, so the inevitable measurement of your own life against the carefully curated public lives of your peers would certainly fall under that maxim.

In addition, US wages have been stagnant since 1979, and with each passing year the effect of that stagnation against inflation becomes ever more depressing. When your three minimum-wage jobs still don’t provide enough money to pay your basic bills, there’s a good chance that will make you sad. And let’s not forget that a certain orange-faced, extravagantly-coiffed narcissist had spent the preceding four years depressing anyone with a functional moral compass. If you were a fan of compassion, understanding, ethics, functional government, or racial equality, by 2020 you’d have been 1200 days into a particularly draining mood.

So those are just some of the reasons 2020 Americans were a bit sad

As a resident of California, I can tell you that having a boring, competent president, avoiding most social media, and doing a job that pays enough to get by will make you much happier than the opposite of those things. That said, I’ve delved into these surveys in the past because ‘happiness’ is such an ephemeral, abstract notion. This is demonstrated by the fact that these surveys tend to tell us that Finland is one of the ‘happiest’ nations on earth, despite having the highest suicide rate in Europe.

How can that be? Well, people who are depressed enough to kill themselves tend to be a small proportion of outliers, and with a strong drinking culture and 24-hour darkness through much of the year, the Finnish way of life isn’t always the cheeriest. But for the rest of the Finns, low crime rates, an abundance of natural beauty, an emphasis on community and cooperation, universal health care, and low poverty mean the nation is generally in a good mood. 

You might have noticed that America is missing almost all of those factors…

So a good place to start increasing happiness would be to implement policies that emphasise a communal goal of helping each other, rather than one of survival of the fittest. Even on a decent salary, I can tell you that the oppressive expense of the US healthcare system leaves me a little sadder each day.

One of the other problems is the confusion between happiness and pleasure. One is deeper and longer-lasting, while the other disappears as quickly as it arrives and, ironically, can lead to a great deal of unhappiness. The thrills of gambling, drinking, taking drugs and other naughty behaviour are a kind of pulse-racing Yin to the Yang of the consequences that inevitably follow.

Millions of Americans would like to set off on the more socialised road to Scandinavian happiness, or at least universal healthcare. Unfortunately, millions more think of such things as both un-American and impossible to implement. Until the latter can understand that being happy is more important than being angry, the rest of us will have to find our happiness elsewhere.

Featured image: Arthouse Studio / Pexels

Ben Kay, Writer

Ah! The good old ‘about’ section. Time to decide whether to talk about myself in the first person or the third…OK, here goes: I’ve been a CD, GCD, ECD, Creative Partner and an agency founder (twice). I’ve worked on nascent start-ups and the biggest company in the world, and I’ve won dozens of awards and pitches. It’s been fun; it still is. It’s also been a fascinating series of challenges, from building creative departments to working with The Cookie Monster (surprisingly urbane).The older I get the more interested I am in the effect advertising has on the wider world. In 2017 I started an ethical agency and gave myself a very unofficial MBA in the moral questions advertising should consider within the conversations surrounding diversity, the use of global resources and of course the Climate Crisis. We still need to convey information on behalf of corporations and organizations, but we also need to be responsible for any secondary effects and unintended externalities that our work might create.Fortunately it seems that the acknowledgement of those responsibilities is becoming more obvious and more prevalent. If I can do my part in infusing that perspective into places where it can have a greater effect, so much the better. We all need to do our bit, and improved communication is usually the first step in making that happen.I look forward to getting more opportunities to make the kind of difference I think we’re going to need in the near future. And if, along the way, I get to work with Gonzo, Kermit or The Swedish Chef, that would be a welcome bonus.

All articles