On Avoiding Happiness in America

On his excellent blog (See Scoreboard Links) , communitarian sociologist Amitai Etzioni notes that a recent poll that was reported in the current issue of The Periodical Observer showed that not one of 1,200 respondents considered it “very unlikely” that they would take a higher-paying job at the sacrifice of time with family, friends, and recreational or spiritual pursuits. The fact is that most Americans believe that more money means greater happiness.

Not only does this mean that Americans have forgotten their clichés; it means that the messages sent by the nation’s culture are affirmatively warping our values. Despite numerous studies that indicate happiness is produced more consistently by other factors, such as marriage and self-determination, Americans are working more hours in pursuit of cash to buy bigger houses, fancier cars, and other non-essential items. It doesn’t work: another study that polled Americans in 1972 on their salary and happiness levels found that they had more than doubled their salaries by 2000 with no increase in happiness at all. “They just don’t get it,” Etzioni concludes. He’s right, but why?

Two factors are at fault. The first, and less important, is the relentless glorification of the rich by the media, especially television. TV routinely equates money with a wonderful life, and even the large number of wealthy celebrities who are exposed as neurotic, lonely, nasty or stressed to the snapping point cannot overcome that message. The second factor, more powerful still, is deeply ingrained in American culture. The national ideology is that America allows every individual the opportunity to reach his or her “potential.” Sadly, accumulated wealth and salary levels are the only way Americans know how to “keep score.” When a high school classmate whom you thought was a pathetic geek shows up at the class reunion driving a Rolls, you feel like he has lapped you in the Race of Life. That isn’t necessarily true at all, of course: he may have a rotten marriage, health problems, and no friends. He may even still be a pathetic geek. But being an American, you feel like he has topped you somehow. Worst of all, you suspect that he thinks so too.

The best example of this is the behavior of professional athletes when contract time comes around. Many of them literally earn more money than they know what to do with. This ought to give them complete freedom to work and live where they please, to build a lifestyle that maximizes happiness. One city offers them a climate they like, a team well suited to their skills, a support network of good friends and a healthy environment for their family. The money offer: 10 million dollars a year. Another team is in a city that is colder, farther away from friends and family, with less to offer in every way, except money. That team offers 15 million dollars a year. 99% of athletes who have this choice choose the latter city. Their self-esteem demands that they take the higher salary offer, because they and their peers measure their own worth by the number on the pay check.

This well-documented behavior alone should tip off Americans that the salary chase is an endless treadmill to nowhere, but it does not, as the recent poll showed. Deep in our subconscious, we scoff at the sage who tells us that we should value other things. If he’s a poor sage, we think, “Ha! He’s saying that because he can’t cut it.” If he’s a wealthy sage, we think, “That’s easy for him to say. He’s made his money.” Because the American culture pushes us toward a competitive, money-oriented approach to self-esteem, financial considerations constantly distort our ethical choices. The greatest irony is that even those who choose lifestyle and free time over money are often plagued by feelings that they have “copped out”: “Did I make this choice because I wanted to, or just because I knew I would never make the big bucks?” Their happiness is still compromised. Our culture makes it difficult to be happy with money, and without it.

No, we don’t get it. And the frightening thing is that it may well be that not getting it is the price we pay for all the other benefits America’s hard-driving individualism and personal freedom bring us. If so, it’s a pretty steep price.

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