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The United States and Happiness

Most countries know deep in their bones that life is – for the most part – a painful and unsatisfactory business: misery is the norm, one is born to suffer, the rewards may come, if at all, in another life. To suggest that happiness might be a right and to inscribe this ambition explicitly in one’s founding document is one part, and perhaps the most significant, of what has from the outset rendered the United States an exception among nations.

No visitor will fail to note the expressions of this constitutional hedonism. The greetings are effusive, the smiles acute. Gigantic billboards express the national catechism along the highways, the radio voices are frenziedly jubilant. Everyone is on an upwards path. Jerusalem is not a mythic city in the next world: it is to be built right here, with these hands, on this hill.

Artists of the American republic have never found it hard to create an ironic effect simply by placing, and exploring, the lives of real people against the backdrop of this self-proclaimed earthly Jerusalem. Here is a ‘regular’ upstanding family man at Disneyland’s Enchanted Castle, texting his lover and plotting his escape. Here is a fractious couple moving towards divorce at the Paradise Resort in Malibu. Here is the ostracised prom queen, weeping by her stretched limousine. And here is an enthusiastic RV salesman, who will in a few hours shoot himself with a 45 in the parking lot of the Sunshine Motel. In far more accomplished ways, in half a dozen art forms, we’ve been here many, many times before.

What is being mocked is how hard the surrounding culture has made it for people to reconcile themselves to their own reality. Self-acceptance can feel impossible when perfection was meant to be the norm. What chances does one have to cry without shame in Happy, Texas (‘the town without a frown’)? Grief is left to be viewed as a damning personal deficiency rather than what it might otherwise and more consolingly be known as: an inevitable outcome of existence in a disenchanted venal world.

The American misery that does exist is quickly medicalised and, if possible, expunged chemically. Or else, when someone can be blamed for it, there may be a lawsuit. But what is intolerable is that sorrow should be interpreted as a general rule which might not be immediately cured or neatly pinned to a personal failing. America is a very difficult place to admit to melancholy. The feeling isn’t merely evidence of an individual loss of spirit; it’s an affront to national destiny.

Psychology teaches us that manic happiness is frequently a symptom of a pain that cannot be faced. A smile has to become permanent in order that an underlying sorrow can never be felt. By extension, America may be smiling very hard not because it is genuinely carefree but because there are a few things it simply cannot bear to mourn.

It is telling that there are two groups within the United States who have never found it hard to own up to sadness. At the centre of Native American history is the Trail of Tears, a memory of the forcible mass removal of the Cherokees – against the explicit promises of earlier leaders in Washington – from their lands east of the Mississippi to what is now Oklahoma. There are, unsurprisingly, few happy faces staring back at us from 19th century Native American portraits. In many communities, Thanksgiving is plainly known as the National Day of Mourning.

Elizabeth “Betsy” Brown Stephens (1903), a Cherokee Indian who walked the Trail of Tears in 1838

African Americans have passed through a comparably bleak experience of the republic. Not for nothing has one of their major cultural contributions to the history of music been known quite simply as the ‘blues’. And no wonder the smiles in the dominant culture have often had to be so bright to cover up so many tears.

The Trail of Tears memorial monument, New Echota, Georgia, which honors the 4,000 Cherokees who died on the Trail of Tears.

All countries have their horrors and all peoples their sources of guilt. There can be no purity and no unalloyed pride. But the more a nation is able to accept how much it has, across its history, been involved in pain, the more it can come to a natural and mature relationship to darkness. It won’t need to smile so perfectly and so avidly – like someone who is in flight from something they cannot mourn; it can learn more easily to walk and take ownership of its own trail of tears.

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