The Pursuit of Happiness and the Fading American Dream

It is embedded in the deepest layers of American society. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” is the founding creed from the Declaration of Independence that aims at fulfillment in life to all. 

In reality, however, this ideal does not even scratch the surface of the American society. Despite spending astronomical amounts of money and working very hard to find happiness, the US has the highest rate of antidepressant use in the world. What is the reason and what can be done to invert this phenomenon?

Per-capita income in America has more than doubled since 1972, but its citizens’ well- being is sending unsettling signals of decline. The US  is ranked only 18th out of 156 countries measured by the World Happiness Report 2018, significantly below other wealthy nations. The report’s editor, economist Jeffrey Sachs, stated that “the trends are not good, and the comparative position of the US relative to other high-income countries is nothing short of alarming.” He attributes this divergence to obesity, drug abuse and depression, problems associated with dissatisfaction in life.

The pursuit of happiness is constantly motivating people to seek the source of happiness. A well-oiled American industry of self-help products and services that sell the illusion of joy and satisfaction is estimated to be worth more than 10 billion dollars a year. A significant amount is also spent on traveling abroad, around 118 billion dollars, among other astonishing expenditures in leisure and indulgence.

If such exertion is not bearing fruit, is it possible that the problem is how and where people in this pursuit of happiness are seeking it?

“A well-oiled American industry of self-help products and services that sell the illusion of joy and satisfaction is estimated to be worth more than 10 billion dollars a year.”

“Buying a new car, an impressive house, the ultimate electronic device, getting a prestigious job, will give us short-lived satisfaction.”

How We Measure Happiness

The valuing of hard work to achieve success in life is usually interpreted as the accumulation of materialistic possessions, focusing on things that bring us joy and satisfaction, everything that money appears to buy. Acquiring as much money as possible also provides a sense of self-worth, as the person gaining wealth also gains respect and recognition from others. We live under the impression that being rich is equivalent to being happy, so we are ready to do whatever it takes to get rich.

This aim motivates people to work longer and socialize less, and thus experience the opposite of the desired effect: more loneliness and dissatisfaction due to the overwhelming investment in time and efforts to achieve this goal. The more we focus on the things that bring us pleasure, the faster the feeling fades and loses its importance.

Buying a new car, an impressive house, the ultimate electronic device, getting a prestigious job, will give us short-lived satisfaction. We will eventually adapt to these new acquisitions, thus returning to our starting point and ending up in the same state or even unhappier than we were before. It’s the same old rat race, where we are constantly chasing new sources of pleasure as the old ones expire.

Happiness Depends On Other People

In contrast to the common perception that “wealth = happiness,” various long-term studies have also reached the conclusion that close relationships, not possessions, hold the key to happiness.

When asked to summarize decades of research in the field of positive psychology, renowned psychologist Chris Peterson replied, “other people matter.” One of the world’s longest studies on this subject, of nearly 80 years, has been conducted by Harvard researchers. They have tracked the personal evolution of 268 sophomores to identify factors influencing a healthy and happy life.

The study found that friendship and social connection, more than money and fame, is what makes people happy. Furthermore, those who had warm relationships and belonged to a community not only lived happier lives, but longer ones. As part of the study’s conclusions, its director Robert Waldinger stated that “loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcohol addiction.”

The wisdom of Kabbalah has discussed this principle over thousands of years: true happiness can only be found through positive human connection, in our collective unity, where each person is outwardly-focused toward friends and society. Moreover, Kabbalah states that connection-based happiness is limitless in potential.

But why? What is it about giving and positively connecting with others that can make our happiness unlimited? Also, what limits our happiness?

“In contrast to the common perception that “wealth = happiness,” various long-term studies have also reached the conclusion that close relationships, not possessions, hold the key to happiness.”

Self-Concern: The Happiness Limiter

What limits our happiness is our self-concern, when we try to enjoy individually and at the expense of others. According to Kabbalah, human nature is a desire to enjoy. Our every nature-given motivation is to enjoy, feel good and be happy. However, although our every desire is constantly working to make us happy, our problem is that we don’t know how to enjoy. As the above-mentioned examples showed, we interpret this desire to enjoy in terms of desires for gaining wealth and material acquisitions, honor and respect, control and knowledge.

Such corporeal, material forms of enjoyment all share a common denominator: we try to fulfill ourselves individually at the expense of others. The problem with enjoying in this mode is that the desire to enjoy is made in such a way where self-aimed pleasure extinguishes the moment it enters us. Like when we eat, we extinguish our hunger, and by the end of the meal we don’t want to eat anymore, so it is with our other corporeal desires: they all fade away upon their fulfillment. This is the reason for the paradox as to why, although we have built a Western society abundant with material pleasures, depression and loneliness abound.

The founders of the wisdom of Kabbalah realized this problem with human nature, and sought to find a solution. What they found is that when the desire to enjoy is redirected, when we stop aiming to fulfill ourselves individually, and start aiming to fulfill others, although we don’t see any direct benefit from such an inclination, it actually is the key to enjoy and be happy limitlessly. Kabbalists discovered that behind what we envision as happiness, there is a source of happiness, an opposite desire to our own nature, which is a quality of giving, love and connection. When we try to emulate this quality, by trying to give, love and positively connect with others, then it influences us and changes us, bringing us more and more into balance with it. And the more we balance ourselves with nature, the happier we become.

Happiness Science and Positive Psychology Confirming What Kabbalah Has Been Stating for 1,000s of Years

Only recently, in the last 20-30 or so years, happiness science and positive psychology emerged to study what makes us happy, and what stands in the way of people’s happiness. These fields reach the conclusions that the wisdom of Kabbalah stated 5,000 years ago: that giving actually makes us far happier than receiving. The stronger our relationships with others, the happier we are. If our desire is focused outside ourselves, on giving to others, then we will not feel empty all the time.

The expectation of happiness depends solely on us, and only we dictate the scope of our future happiness. It can inflate, expand, and be enjoyed all the time, and thus a person has the potential to enjoy boundlessly. Instead of trying to enjoy detached from others, and finding ourselves empty-handed time after time, we can build ever-increasing happiness through our efforts to positively connect, coming closer and closer to balance with nature. Then, complete fulfillment will be a tangible reality and not only a dream.

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