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T homas Jefferson penned the phrase “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” declaring them in the Declaration of Independence to be inalienable rights. He would no doubt fall over in his rocker if he glimpsed the insatiable appetite we have developed in our modern-day pursuit of happiness 240 years later. Our goals and aspirations bear little resemblance to those of Jefferson and his contemporaries. With our basic needs met long ago, even the most needy among us live better than anyone in his time, and yet as a society we are far from satisfied.
Over the years as advances in industry and technology increased productivity, we did not slow our pursuit—quite the opposite. We work more, sleep less, and have far more than ever. However, in a world defined by consumption, the price tag on happy continues to climb, thereby accelerating the treadmill of our pursuit.
Modern America didn’t just happen by accident. Politicians and corporations have been rebranding happiness since the 1920s. They feared Americans might stop buying the new goods they were so efficiently producing, and thus began the manipulation of our cultural idea of happiness into the Gospel of Consumerism. Corporations spend billions of dollars every year to convince us that more stuff will make us more desirable, successful and happy, while politicians preach that economic growth is the key to all that is good. Ironically, neither is true, and our insatiable pursuit of this celluloid happiness has us running in the opposite direction from the real things that truly bring joy to our lives.
Scientific researchers and spiritual leaders agree that the cornerstones of sustainable happiness do not come as a “buy one, get one free” special, nor can they be predicted by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). We need loving relationships, safe and healthy communities, opportunities for meaningful work, and simple practices such as gratitude, helping others and meditation. The possessions we covet, and sacrifice to obtain, only bring us momentary joy. Eventually, all new things become old. Regardless how big our house or pricey our car, at some point, far sooner than anyone expects, they become just a house and a car. If we peg our happiness to such trinkets, we will never have enough satisfaction to fill us up for long. After all, when is enough, enough?
The Origins of America-Style Happiness
Consumption was not always the way of life in America. In the 1920s, business owners and politicians worried that we would stop buying new things once we satisfied our needs. They attributed the phenomenal rise of America to the growth in consumer goods. If people began to enjoy their daily lives more—thanks to all the new conveniences—they would spend less time buying new things, they feared. To solve the dilemma, Freudian psychologists partnered with advertising executives to develop a strategy to attach our universal desires for status, beauty, love and self-esteem to products.
President Hoover’s economic report, published just months before the 1929 crash, rejoiced in this phenomenon: “By advertising and other promotional devices…a measurable pull on production has been created which releases capital otherwise tied up. Economically we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied.”
Between the 1930s and 1960s, Freudian psychologist Ernest Dichter became famous for his part in the transformation of businesses such as Procter & Gamble, Exxon, Chrysler, General Mills and DuPont. Fleeing Europe in 1931, Dichter recognized that in America, brands had become a substitute for nobility and family pedigree. He noticed that people would seek out products to fit in with a group they aspired to associate with, and that products could have meaning relating to sexual desire, affluence and self-esteem.
His theories radically changed the way products from cars to candy were sold in America. He developed new research techniques, including focus groups, and identified the power of word-of-mouth persuasion. Recognizing the need to counter the negative overtones associated with buying such self-indulgent products as tobacco, alcohol or candy, he encouraged marketers to sell the products as “rewards.”
Armed with Freudian psychology, airtime to fill, and endless products to sell, the modern advertising industry systematically set out to redefine our beliefs about happiness and how we could obtain a new shiny version every season. As Dichter said, “To some extent, the needs and wants of people have to be continuously stirred up.” It’s not good enough that everyone buys a car. The automakers need to sell new cars every year; they need a perpetual purchase cycle.
Dichter attributed his success to the importance of understanding “not how people should behave, but how they do behave.” In his 1960 book, The Strategy of Desire, he observes, “You would be amazed to find how often we mislead ourselves, regardless of how smart we think we are, when we attempt to explain why we are behaving the way we do.” Our possessions are extensions of our own personalities, which serve as a “kind of mirror which reflects our own image.”
Fast forward 50-plus years and even Dichter might be surprised to find the imitations of life reflected through the Internet today. Social media has tapped into the shallowest caverns of the human psyche, fulfilling the need to appear happy and special, regardless of the price tag or the reality.
The Price Tag of Prosperity
American ideals of prosperity have driven the global freight train of production for the last century. The altruistic intention of some to distribute prosperity, and the unbridled greed of others, has shuffled production and currency around the globe. Although corporations and countries have prospered on paper, the fabric of society is coming apart at the seams in many places.
From China to America, the little people have paid a hefty price for our cheap stuff. Chinese farmers have been relocated to industrial communes, trapped in state-sanctioned slavery. Farmers in America have been pushed off their land by the strong arm of industrial farming, their towns gutted and abandoned as their children flee to the ever-expanding suburbs to survive.
Our big, beautiful homes, typically twice the size of homes 40 years ago, are crushing us in debt and stress. Keeping up with the Joneses is a pricey proposition these days, with seemingly never-ending upgrades to ratchet up the competition.
People everywhere have more possessions and conveniences than ever before, so why are we so depressed? Each year, over 200 million antidepressant prescriptions are dispensed in the United States. A whopping 80% of all antidepressant medication in the world is taken in the United States. Even our children are falling victim to the epidemic. According to the American College Health Association, the percentage of college students diagnosed with depression increased 56% from 2001 to 2010. These statistics alone illustrate the lack of happiness in America today.
For decades, politicians have identified the health of a country by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but this has proven to be an untrustworthy measurement. Portions of economic activity are weighed regardless of the impact on society. As the editors of YES Magazine identified in their book, Sustainable Happiness: Live Simply, Live Well, Make a Difference, “Dig a strip mine and sell the metals, minerals, or coal, and the GDP will thank you—even if you pollute the drinking water for thousands. Raise fresh food in your garden, share it with friends and with the local homeless shelter, and stay healthy and happy, and the GDP doesn’t budge.”
In contrast, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) measures the overall well-being of a country by subtracting harmful things, such as pollution, crime, and sickness, and including contributions to the economy overlooked by the GDP, such as stay-at-home parents and community volunteering. The Genuine Progress Indicator measures 26 indicators, which can be divided into three main categories: economic, environmental and social.
In the United States, the GDP and GPI stayed relatively in sync until 1979, when things began to change. The GDP continued to grow, while the GPI remained stagnant. Although our workload has increased over the decades, with more of our time and resources allocated to economic growth, that strategy is no longer delivering happiness, especially to those on the bottom of the ladder. The past few decades have squeezed the middle and lower classes, while the top 1% have amassed unthinkable fortunes.
Productivity since WWII has increased at a staggering pace, yet instead of sharing the wealth with workers in the form of higher wages or fewer hours for the same pay, corporations did the opposite. They outsourced labor to low-wage regions of the world, laid off workers and increased the workload on the few left behind. By squeezing the bottom line, corporations then showered shareholders with unprecedented profits and rewarded executives with astronomical bonuses. They spent billions on lobbyists and campaign contributions to buy favor with politicians, who reduced taxes and created favorable laws and trade deals instead of taxing those profits to fund education, infrastructure, transportation systems, environmentally safe energy, and numerous other initiatives that would have actually improved our quality of life.
Chinese factory-worker suicides, blood diamonds in the Congo, and 47 million Americans on food stamps are but a few of the casualties of the new world order. Repercussions of globalization have crippled entire industries and desolated many towns, even regions, in the United States.
The reasons behind these fundamental changes have become political lightning rods in the current electoral circus. If we have learned anything from recent political developments, it is that Americans on all sides of the aisle are resoundingly not happy. Although many people are displeased with either of the presumptive choices on the table, at least the roar of dissatisfaction has broken through the numbing rhetoric of the media and government establishment.
On opposite sides of the podium, both Trump and Sanders were ferocious underdogs. Both candidates tapped the anger and frustration bubbling under the surface to ignite a new political fervor and bring to light topics rarely on the list of politicians’ talking points. Regardless of which party you support, those facts speak for themselves.
Citizens are tired of political rhetoric and empty promises. Many Americans are ready to abandon middle-of-the-road politics in favor of right and left extreme-wing ideology, if it will elicit real change. No more hope, they want action!
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Written by Jules Lewis Gibson, founder and editor in chief of GRAVITAS Magazine
Follow Jules @SeasideJules