The Happiness of Pursuit

Americans are free to pursue happiness, but there's no guarantee we'll achieve it. The secret is knowing how — and where — to look

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Illustration by Peter Arkle for TIME

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If there's an upside to America's down mood, it's that happiness and the ways we pursue it are so wonderfully adaptive. The country has been at this kind of societal inflection point before--many times before, really--and we've come through it with our spirit intact. Think we're in psychic crisis now? Try the existential crisis of the Civil War, which eventually led to rebuilding and reconciliation, peace and prosperity. Think overleveraged homes and lack of mobility spell the end today? Try the Great Depression. The rise of industrial America, which we usually think of as a good thing, probably felt a lot like our era does now to the workers back then, as people who really wanted to make money left the frontiers and poured into manufacturing centers. It was the end of homesteading and the beginning of clock punching, which seemed terrible, except that clock punching eventually made a lot of people rich or at least richer than they had been.

We're adapting in similar ways now. Steel mills close and tech start-ups open; old media falters and new media emerges. None of it is easy; it's called disruption for a reason. But if the settler gazing out over 1,000 pristine acres felt that delicious frisson of neurotransmitters churning a century or two ago, why shouldn't the entrepreneur drafting a business plan or the Web designer preparing to launch a site experience the same thing?

No American simply inherits happiness by dint of genes or birthplace or a brain set to sunny. Happiness, for a culture, is more like a vital sign, the temperature and heart rate of a nation. Like all vital signs, it can fluctuate. But like all vital signs, it has a set point, a level to which it strives to return. America's happiness set point has long been high and healthy--a simple gift of biology, history and environment maybe but a gift all the same. In our own loud and messy way, we've always worked to make the most of it, and we probably always will.


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