Want??to??get??Americans??to??agree??on??something? Ask us if we're happy. In an era in which we can't reach consensus on the dangers of the deficit, the wisdom of the war or even the color of the map, a clear majority stake a claim on happiness. In a TIME poll, 78% of those surveyed said they feel that way most or all of the time. But beneath the national contentment there's evidence of a creeping dissatisfaction too. Why else are so many of us flocking to therapists, consulting divorce lawyers, scarfing Prozac? Why do so many reach midlife with a surprising sense of emptiness? Why does the self-help book remain such a reliable cash machine? In a society as wealthy and privileged as the U.S.'s, what, after all, does it take to find real satisfaction in life?
Joy, as events abruptly remind us, is a fragile thing. In the suffering of millions in the Asian tsunami and in the years of fear and grief that have followed 9/11, it has become clearer than ever how all manner of life tremors--tectonic, economic, personal and political--can sometimes make the pursuit of happiness seem like a trivial one. Yet we cannot live without it. The Founding Fathers understood this, seeing something noble, essential and universal in the human yearning to be happy.
In the two centuries since, we've tried to make good on that charge, living large not just on our food and wealth and pop culture but also on deeper, richer things. We seek rapture in our spirituality, love in our families, bliss in our art. Even our most perilous explorations are conducted with a certain American exuberance. Know the first word moonwalker Pete Conrad spoke as he jumped from the final rung of his lunar-module ladder? "Whoopee!"
The pages that follow, TIME's third annual Mind & Body special issue on health, explore how work, marriage, religion, money, health and even laughter itself lead to (and flow from) a state of happiness. We may not always be able to find it, but we know when we have arrived. And sometimes a road map can help.