Why Are Americans So Unhappy?

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fixedw_large_4x.jpgAt a Christmas outing to the Biltmore estate near Asheville, North Carolina, I struck up a conversation with a man from the Middle East, likely Pakistan, but I cannot be certain, as I was not bold enough to ask. As we moved from room to room, we exchanged more than one quip about the exhibits—things like the small size of the beds or the fact the house has its own bowling alley. For those of you unfamiliar with the Biltmore Estate, it is a large (6950.4 acre or 10.86 square miles) private estate and tourist attraction near Asheville. Biltmore House, the main residence, is a Chåteauesque-style mansion built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895 and is the largest privately owned house in the United States, at 178,926 square feet (16,622.8 m2) of floor space (135,280 square feet (12,568 m2) of living area). Still owned by George Vanderbilt’s descendants, it stands today as one of the most prominent remaining examples of the Gilded Age. 

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The greenhouse entrance

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As we made our way from one roped area to another, our conversation also took a more serious tone. At length, he asked me, “Why does the American society view only the negatives? I have never understood why in such a great land, one that can produce such opulence, why the Americans I meet walk around in profound sadness.”

In truth, I was a bit taken aback. I admit that I am the person who always sees the glass half empty—even at the age of 70, I cannot keep hidden the hopes of the little girl who was forever forbidden what others took for granted. Touring rooms at a grand estate is not a place for such a heavy conversation, but I did ask him if he had ever read “The Unhappy American Way,” an article from the British philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell. He had not, and so I suggested that he might find it interesting. Soon we parted ways as his party decided to loop through an open area again, while my friend Kim and I headed for the exit. It was well after midnight, and our “pumpkin” was looking more and more like a frost-covered SUV. 

However, some two weeks later, I received a quick email on my website from the gentleman (I am a writer; most assuredly, I handed him one of my cards to pass along to the women in his party.), in which he thanked me for the recommendation. In the email, he spoke of the parts he found both enlightening and the ones he thought disturbing. Therefore, I thought I might share the piece with you. It is quite short. Let me know what you think. 

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Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate. At various points in his life, Russell considered himself a liberal, a socialist, and a pacifist, but he also admitted that he had “never been any of these things, in any profound sense”.  Russell was born in Monmouthshire into one of the most prominent aristocratic families in the United Kingdom. In the early 20th century, Russell led the British “revolt against idealism. [Russell, Bertrand, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell. (3 vols.) Allen & Unwin: London, 1967-1969.]

[Before you read this, please understand that I spent 40 years as a teacher. I always preferred to challenge my students — to permit them to question what they read and accept or disregard it. I offer you the same challenge.]

“The Unhappy American Way” by Bertrand Russell

It used to be said that English people take their pleasures sadly. No doubt this would still be true if they had any pleasures to take, but the price of alcohol and tobacco in my country has provided sufficient external causes for melancholy. I have sometimes thought that the habit of taking pleasures sadly has crossed the Atlantic, and I have wondered what it is that makes so many English-speaking people somber in their outlook in spite of good health and a good income.

In the course of my travels in America I have been impressed by a kind of fundamental malaise which seems to me extremely common and which poses difficult problems for the social reformer. Most social reformers have held the opinion that, if poverty were abolished and there were no more economic insecurity, the millennium would have arrived. But when I look at the faces of people in opulent cars, whether in your country or in mine, I do not see that look of radiant happiness which the aforesaid social reformers had led me to expect. In nine cases out of ten, I see instead a look of boredom and discontent and an almost frantic longing for something that might tickle the jaded palate.

But it is not only the very rich who suffer in this way. Professional men very frequently feel hopelessly thwarted. There is something that they long to do or some public object that they long to work for. But if they were to indulge their wishes in these respects, they fear that they would lose their livelihood. Their wives are equally unsatisfied, for their neighbor, Mrs So-and-So, has gone ahead more quickly, has a better car, a larger apartment and grander friends.

Life for almost everybody is a long competitive struggle where very few can win the race, and those who do not win are unhappy. On social occasions when it is derigueur to seem cheerful, the necessary demeanor is stimulated by alcohol. But the gaiety does not ring true and anybody who has just one drink too many is apt to lapse into lachrymose melancholy.

One finds this sort of thing only among English-speaking people. A Frenchman while he is abusing the Government is as gay as a lark. So is an Italian while he is telling you how his neighbor has swindled him. Mexicans, when they are not actually starving or actually being murdered, sing and dance and enjoy sunshine and food and drink with a gusto which is very rare north of the Mexican frontier. When Andrew Jackson[2] conquered Pensacola from the Spaniards, his wife looked out of the window and saw the population enjoying itself although it was Sunday. She pointed out the scandal to her husband, who decreed that cheerfulness must cease forthwith. And it did.

When I try to understand what it is that prevents so many Americans from being as happy as one might expect, it seems to me that there are two causes, of which one goes much deeper than the other. The one that goes least deep is the necessity for subservience in some large organization. If you are an energetic man with strong views as to the right way of doing the job with which you are concerned, you find yourself invariably under the orders of some big man at the top who is elderly, weary and cynical. Whenever you have a bright idea, the boss puts a stopper on it. The more energetic you are and the more vision you have, the more you will suffer from the impossibility of doing any of the things that you feel ought to be done. When you go home and moan to your wife, she tells you that you are a silly fellow and that if you became the proper sort of yesman your income would soon be doubled. If you try divorce and remarriage it is very unlikely that there will be any change in this respect. And so you are condemned to gastric ulcers and premature old age.

It was not always so. When Dr. Johnson[3] compiled his dictionary, he compiled it as he thought fit. When he felt like saying that oats is food for men in Scotland and horses in England, he said so. When he defined a fishing-rod as a stick with a fish at one end and a fool at the other, there was nobody to point out to him that a remark of this sort would damage the sale of his great work among fishermen. But if, in the present day, you are (let us say) a contributor to an encyclopedia, there is an editorial policy which is solemn, wise and prudent, which allows no room for jokes, no place for personal preferences and no tolerance for idiosyncrasies. Everything has to be flattened out except where the prejudices of the editor are concerned. To these you must conform, however little you may share them. And so you have to be content with dollars instead of creative satisfaction. And the dollars, alas, leave you sad.

This brings me to the major cause of unhappiness, which is that most people in America act not on impulse but on some principle, and that principles upon which people act are usually based upon a false psychology and a false ethic. There is a general theory as to what makes for happiness and this theory is false. Life is concerned as a competitive struggle in which felicity consists in getting ahead of your neighbor. The joys which are not competitive are forgotten.

Now, I will not for a moment deny that getting ahead of your neighbor is delightful, but it is not the only delight of which human beings are capable. There are innumerable things which are not competitive. It is possible to enjoy food and drink without having to reflect that you have a better cook and a better wine merchant than your former friends whom you are learning to cold shoulder. It is possible to be fond of your wife and your children without reflecting how much better she dresses than Mrs. So-and-So and how much better they are at athletics than the children of that old stick-in-the-mud Mr. Such-and-Such. There are those who can enjoy music without thinking how cultured the other ladies in their women’s club will be thinking them. There are even people who can enjoy a fine day in spite of the fact that the sun shines on everybody. All these simple pleasures are destroyed as soon as competitiveness gets the upper hand.

But it is not only competitiveness that is the trouble. I could imagine a person who has turned against competitiveness and can only enjoy after conscious rejection of the competitive element. Such a person, seeing the sunshine in the morning, says to himself, “Yes, I may enjoy this and indeed I must, for it is a joy open to all.” And however bored he may become with the sunshine he goes on persuading himself that he is enjoying it because he thinks he ought to.

“But,” you will say, “are you maintaining that our actions ought not to be governed by moral principles? Are you suggesting that every whim and every impulse should be given free rein? Do you consider that if So-and-So’s nose annoys you by being too long, that gives you a right to tweak it?” “Sir,” you will continue with indignation,” “your doctrine is one which would uproot all the sources of morality and loosen all the bonds which hold society together. Only self-restraint, self-repression, iron self-control make it possible to endure the abominable beings among whom we have to live. No, sir! Better misery and gastric ulcers than such chaos as your doctrine would produce!”

I will admit at once that there is force in this objection. I have seen many noses that I should have liked to tweak, but never once have I yielded to the impulse. But this, like everything else, is a matter of degree. If you always yield to impulse, you are mad. If you never yield to impulse, you gradually dry up and very likely become mad to boot. In a life which is to be healthy and happy, impulse, though not allowed to run riot, must have sufficient scope to remain alive and to preserve that variety and diversity of interest which is natural to a human being. A life lived on a principle, no matter what, is too narrowly determined, too systematic and uniform, to be happy. However much you care about success, you should have times when you are merely enjoying life without a thought of subsequent gain. However proud you may be, as president of a women’s club, of your impeccable culture, you should not be ashamed of reading a lowbrow book if you want to. A life which is all principle is a life on rails. The rails may help toward rapid locomotion, but preclude the joy of wandering. Man spent some million years wandering before he invented rails, and his happiness still demands some reminiscence of the earlier ages of freedom. 

 

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in American History, political stance, real life tales, research, writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Why Are Americans So Unhappy?

  1. Whew. This was pretty heavy for a Monday morning, but wow! Very interesting. As usual you are amazing on research. I never looked at Americans as sad, but more spoiled and ungrateful. Guess that adds to the problem. If people would travel abroad maybe they would see what an amazing place we live, breathe, and the blessings we have. Thanks.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read the essay. I agree with you on “Americans as sad.” Sometimes, we are too outgoing, but that is me again thinking the glass is half empty. LOL!

  2. JanisB says:

    I’m not sure I agree with you or Russell on this. DH is a professional and loves what he does (not crazy about his boss but that’s a whole ‘nother issue). And I don’t consider myself sad, altho’ life does have its sad moments. Most of the people I know don’t seem sad (again, except at sad moments), nor do people I meet, altho’ might I be missing the signs of sadness? Just because you drive around, or walk around, without a big grin on your face doesn’t mean you’re said. As another commenter suggested, I always feel blessed when I return to the USA after traveling abroad. Anyway, Biltmore is gorgeous. I hope to get another opportunity to visit there soon. BTW, Pakistan is not part of the Middle East.

    • The “sadness” described, in my opinion, is more of Puritan “guilt” we carry about as Americans. It is not one moment in time. It is the core of our being; yet, it is perfectly acceptable for us to have differences of opinion. That is also a core of the American spirit.
      As to the question of the Middle East, in a HuffPost article, I make note of the following: “Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir recently remarked that ‘Pakistan, India and other countries in South Asia and the region’s population of over one billion people cannot be geographically separated.’ The remark represents a departure from years of attempts by Pakistan to deny its South Asian identity and link up instead with the Muslim Middle East.
      Geographically, linguistically, culturally and historically South Asia is a vital part of Pakistan’s personality. Yet for decades a majority of Pakistani policy makers, intellectuals and strategists have attempted to virtually relocate Pakistan within the Muslim Arab Middle East.”
      The Greater Middle East was a political term coined by the second Bush administration in the first decade of the 21st century, to denote various countries, pertaining to the Muslim world, specifically Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Various Central Asian countries are sometimes also included.

  3. Riveting and makes absolute sense. I would always have said that in both our countries (US and UK) it is politics and society that have shaped our desire for success, competition and one-upmanship which then leads to sadness because an eternal search for such means we will be constantly disappointed. Taking delight in the ordinary and the everyday but not if you don’t feel like it is the way to be. Living in Crete for seven years, and not always wanting to go out and enjoy the sun, I struggled with feeling I was wasting my time not making full use of living there. That pressure was added to by needing the warmth because of my autoimmune condition. In a way, it is as if we are all suffused with guilt, whether Catholic or not. Age has given me the wisdom to be happy with what I have and certain traumatic experiences in the last two years I spent in Crete and the two years since I returned to the UK have brought me a new understanding about being happy. I have always laughed through tragedy but that hasn’t always worked for the sadness within.

    • I sometimes think we are more alone when we are in a crowd than any time in our lives. I am a Pentacostal turned Baptist turned Existentialist turned Catholic. I know guilt from many sides.
      I thank sincerely for sharing your insights with us.

  4. Katherine Pym says:

    A great deal of sadness comes from the internal wiring we inherited from our ancestors. Most of us are the result of the Norsemen hordes, the Germanic hard work and stoicism in the face of survival. Then America was built on the foundation of Puritan Ethics, a philosophy that has taken deep root in our thinking. This type of thought makes happiness sinful.

  5. Gerri Bowen says:

    I enjoyed the essay and can understand what he said and tend to agree. But, as I’ve grown older, things aren’t as important to me as they used to be. I’ve discovered the more simple things give me pleasure. I admit I enjoy being silly, especially to my grandchildren.

    • I totally understand, Gerri. Things I used never to do for fear of someone’s rebuke, mean nothing anymore. I had my grandkids at the park the other day, and we were dancing happily while many looked on. No adults joined us, but three more little ones tried to kick up their heels and have fun along with us. I made a happy memory with my grandkids, one that will hopefully ease their minds when things are sad.

  6. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    Well, I’m with the half full, maybe even 3/4 full. I feel happy and love what I do. Some of my students have called me Mrs. Giggles. Hmm… That being said, I was shocked when my first husband said he never had any fun. Then shocked again when my second husband said the same. I feel uplifted in my faith and being in music is like being with the creator every second of the day. My sister loved that old prayer by St Francis of Assisi, “where there is hatred let me sow love, where there is envy – pardon, where there is doubt – faith, where there is despair – hope…” and so on. I don’t think of it, it just comes natural and I’m grateful for where I live and the people who are in my life. My mom was the same way so maybe it’s in our genes? There are many things in life that can make me feel sad but then I look for things to lift me up and carry on. Guess that’s about it. Jen ♫

    • I was singing “Twinkle Twinkle” to the one year old yesterday, and an odd thought came to mind: I sing lots (mostly off key), but I do not recall either of my husbands doing so. I am always singing, especially old songs from commercials and the like, to the grandkids. Perhaps I am more optimistic than I first thought.
      Thanks for joining me today, Jen.

  7. Paula says:

    For me, I’m sad most of the time because as a society we are not progressing but slipping backward in a host of ways…human rights, health care, environment (the EPA is being stripped of its power and long-standing protections rolled back as we speak), standard of living, income inequality, etc.

    • They say history repeats itself, but there is much I could do without. I would prefer lessons learned; yet, I understand how you feel, Paula. So much out of our control.

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