Soon we'll begin breaking all those New Year's resolutions, all in the pursuit of happiness. We've promised to strive to be better, kinder, smarter and maybe most important of all, thinner. We're in constant pursuit of the magic formula to correct our personal failures, and of course the failures of others.
Nothing is more American than the pursuit of happiness. We're entitled: It's even in the Declaration of Independence. For some of us, health is happiness. For others, it's beauty. Politicians define success in terms of power and money. (Their own, first.) Children yearn to grow up and adults hope "to grow." But for most of us, happiness is that elusive state that escapes us as soon as we ask the question. "Ask yourself whether you are happy," warned John Stuart Mill, "and you cease to be so."
Nevertheless, happiness is the buzzword for the New Year. Economist magazine makes it the cover story. A surprise best-selling book is "The Architecture of Happiness" by Alain de Botton, examining the way our houses and buildings affect mood and emotion.
Economists are beginning to regard "gross national happiness" as seriously as they talk about the gross national product. They're evaluating the nature of accumulated "experiences" along with accumulated goods with exhortations to raise the rate of enjoyment as we reduce the rate of unemployment. David Cameron, the latest leader of the ailing Conservative Party in Britain, the same party Margaret Thatcher once revived with toughness and discipline, talks about "general well being," or the GWB, with the fervor the pols once talked about the economy and national security.
Richard Layard, an economist at the London School of Economics, studied stress felt by the unemployed and concluded that stressful unemployment is no longer Britain's No. 1 social problem. More workers are on the dole not because they can't find work, but because they're too depressed and stressed out to work, or look for work.
Men and women in the West don't appear to be any happier than their parents were in that much maligned decade of the 1950s. We work less, live longer, travel more, enjoy greater leisure time and enjoy better health, but on average we're not happier.
Rising expectations are part of the problem as luxuries become necessities, but like frustrated seekers of love, seekers of happiness may be looking in all the wrong places. The trendiest formula for happiness may be the old advice to "go with the flow," based on the ideas expressed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor at Claremont College whose books suggest achieving "optimal experiences" through the attention and concentration that make you forget what you're doing so you can enjoy the sheer pleasure of the adventure.