Opinion: Americans are getting our ‘pursuit of happiness’ all wrong. There’s a simple fix

Three hands lift ice cream cones up in a toast
We need to better recognize that simple moments of happiness, like eating ice cream that others made, packaged, shipped to a store and scooped into a cone, demonstrate our interconnectedness.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
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When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that our unalienable rights include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, he had a very specific definition of happiness in mind. He believed that happiness was the result of living virtuously — that becoming a fully happy human required devoting yourself to service to your fellow beings.

His words galvanized generations of Americans to seek out their own personal well-being. Yet the happiness we pursue today is a far cry from that which Jefferson envisioned. It’s putting us in conflict with ourselves, and with others.

Modern Americans have been conditioned to believe that happiness is something that we get for ourselves, by ourselves, through achieving material wealth, personal success and individual gratification. I call this belief Old Happy. It is powered by systems of individualism, capitalism and domination that have fueled our culture for generations.


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Growing up in this individualistic culture, we are taught to see ourselves as separate from other people. We’re taught that happiness comes from focusing more and more on ourselves and that we can perfect and grow this happiness through personal achievement. This does not work. In one 2015 study, researchers tried to understand why Americans who aggressively pursued happiness were, in fact, more likely to be lonely and depressed. It was because they believed that focusing on themselves was the secret to finding happiness.

This belief is further amplified by the difficulties of living in our Old Happy culture. We have no social safety net and are the only developed nation that does not offer a paid family leave policy, even though years of research has found that the happiest countries are the more equal ones. We have the highest number of billionaires and millionaires of any country, who collectively could use their power and resources to permanently end the struggles of millions of Americans. We ignore decades of research that shows that the conditions people are born, grow up, live, work and age in influence up to 80% of their well-being, all the while telling people to “think their way” to happiness. In a culture like this, it can seem as if we have no choice but to retreat even deeper into our own self-interest.

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The data speak to Old Happy’s devastating impact. In March, according to Gallup data in the “World Happiness Report,” America fell out of the top 20 rankings for the first time. One in four Americans are struggling with their mental health. Fifty percent of Americans say they are lonely. Powered by the unshakable feeling that something is deeply wrong with our society, we look for something to blame it on, be it technology or generational differences or any number of other moral panics, all the while ignoring the root cause of our misery.

Believing that we are separate is what separates us from happiness. True happiness is collective. It is the experience of being connected to others, of participating in relationships of mutuality, of knowing yourself to be a needed and useful part of a greater whole. The road to true well-being is not about elevating the self, but about using the self to do good for others. Changing our perception of happiness to this interconnected one will help.

While we have tentatively started to recognize the effects that our relationships have on our physical and mental health, we haven’t used this awareness to change our culture. To do so, we must affirm and act on the fact that our relationships sustain us and that most moments of our lives demonstrate our dependence upon one another.

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The ice cream that you savored last night was made possible by those who crafted the flavor, tested the recipe, maintained food safety, designed the packaging, marketed the brand and shipped it to your store.


The good professional day you had yesterday was the result of supportive feedback from your boss, an interesting project that benefited your clients and a fun happy hour with colleagues.

Even if you think about something that you did on your own — for example, facing one of your fears — there was someone else who helped to make that moment possible: the parents who instilled a certain value within you, the friend who checked in beforehand, the therapist who helped you process your emotions.

Treating reliance on others like a flaw leads us to miss out on one of the most reliable sources of happiness: contributing to interconnectedness.

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Many studies have demonstrated the profound ways that helping other people benefits us, affecting our physical health, longevity and happiness. Even those who are suffering benefit. In one recent study, researchers took people with depression and anxiety and split them into three groups for a five-week program. The first group was taught how to challenge their automatic negative thoughts. The second group was told to plan social activities every week. The third group was instructed to do three acts of kindness a day, twice a week. It was the third group that saw the greatest improvement in well-being, both five weeks and 10 weeks later.

If we contribute our knowledge, talents and humanity to our collective happiness rather than the pursuit of personal wealth, power and fame, personal happiness would likely also be achieved.

Our Old Happy culture did not appear out of nowhere. Human beings, operating under this flawed understanding of happiness, made it this way. This has contributed to some of the biggest problems that we collectively face, including climate change, inequality and injustice. But all is not lost. We have the power to reorient ourselves toward the promise that Jefferson wrote about: a country where everyone can be happy.

Stephanie Harrison is the founder of The New Happy, and author of “New Happy: Getting Happiness Right in a World That’s Got It Wrong.”