The US: The Land of Opportunity and…Unhappiness??

Jennifer Medelberg – Period 5

In the “land of opportunities”, it should be easy to say we are a country of happy people. We have all the resources we need, entertainment galore,more items than we can handle in stores, we should have it all, so to speak. Yet, do we really? According to Aristotle, happiness is not just having a ton of stuff, partying all the time if you are young, and just being able to do what you like. No, it is all about fulfilling one’s function, not living for the weekend, but the weekend being there so that you can work better.  In Aristotle’s words, “The function of man, then, is exercise of his vital faculties on one side in obedience to reason and on the other side is reason…the function of anything is done well when it is done in accordance with the proper excellence of that thing.” In other words, in order to achieve true long lasting happiness, not just simply the small moments of joy, a man must be able to perform his function to his full potential, completely unhindered. Because he does not establish what the grounds of this function may be, let us assume that this function refers to some sort of work, however this work may or may not be paid work, but should be fulfilling and contribute to the well being of the individual. In other words, laying on one’s back all day and eating Doritos while playing video games should not be considered practicing one’s function. Furthermore, let us assume that one cannot begin to truly perform their function until adulthood, in our case, 18 years old, a point where one no longer has to rely on a parent or guardian and possesses almost all opportunities and rights that come with being an adult. However, this is not assuming that no one under the age of 18 can be truly happy, as they can still work towards their end goal of performing their function to the fullest(i.e. through education), which is a function in and of itself. It is only for simplicity and clarity that for now we put  this group aside. And finally, before moving on, let us establish that no career is necessarily more “fulfilling” than another. That is to stay, someone who is a heart surgeon is not necessarily happier by fulfilling their function than someone who is a janitor. Both can be equally happy under Aristotle’s definition of happiness, so long as both are fulfilling their function.

Now that we have established that in order for a person to achieve “happiness”, he or she must one, must be at least 18 years of age, and must engage in a fulfilling function, one that contributes to their overall well being, we can finally move to addressing the original question: Here in the United States, is it truly possible for a majority if not all people to achieve an Aristotelian idea or happiness? To most the immediate answer is more than likely “Absolutely! This is land of the free and home of the brave! It may be hard but there are opportunities out there for everyone to have fulfilling jobs(or functions) and be happy!” However, let us examine the facts. In order to be happy, one must fulfill their function to the fullest. But in order to achieve this, what exactly entails “the fullest”? We can assume that doing something “to the fullest” means to the best of one’s ability, so even if that means sweeping floors after a bunch of messy high school students, in order to be fulfilling one’s function properly to achieve happiness, they must being doing it to their best of their ability!  But how exactly can we determine whether or not someone is doing something to the best of their ability? Obviously, they must possess the ability  in the first place, which is gained from learning and practice, or education. Without a base education and subsequent secondary specialty education or at the very least specialty education for their function, one cannot have the skills necessary to perform their function to the fullest extent.

Within the context of the United States of America, a primary education would be considered kindergarten through twelfth grade, and completing said education would provide the foundation necessary for the ability to perform one’s function to the best of their ability, by providing part(but not necessarily all) of that ability. Of course, there is university, trade schools, etc,that can follow primary education, but for now let us put those aside to touch on later. According the U.S. Department of Education, the graduation rate for the school year of 2010-2012 was 79%, or about 4 out five students graduating³. While this may seem relatively high, this means that a fifth of all high school students will never get a diploma. Furthermore, this is only the average of all the ethnic groups, which when examining the numbers by ethnic group, three major groups, American Indian, Black, and Hispanic, all have rates significantly below the national average, 65, 67, and 73 percent, respectively³. For three of the major groups, between 35% and 27% do not receive the proper base education, with these numbers being even higher for those at an economic disadvantage and those who have disabilities(with only a 59% graduation rate³). Looking at these numbers, between 49% and 27% of people in the US are automatically at a large disadvantage at achieving true happiness, as their abilities are highly likely to be compromised without, at the very least, a primary education(however there are those who can overcome the odds). And of course this is not to say they have no abilities, but Aristotle stated that their function must be performed to the best of their abilities, and if someone has the capacity to do better, yet chooses not to(i.e. not having a base education in a country with public school), cannot be performing their function to the fullest extent.

For simplicity’s sake, we will use the national graduation average of 79% instead of going group by group from now on. This means that at this point, 21% of the population has been eliminated from the possibility of achieving true happiness within the bounds of Aristotle’s definition of it, and that 79% of the population still has the potential to achieve true happiness. But although this group possesses the ability to practice their function, do they actually do it? While there is no surefire way to measure this, for how are we to supposed to judge whether or not someone is doing something to the best of their abilities, we can examine how much they may actually enjoy their function, which in turn can tell us whether or not they are flexing their abilities. By this I mean, in order for someone to do something to the best of their abilities, they have to enjoy it, or at the very least like it. This is because when someone likes or enjoys doing something, they will put a more effort into it, even is it is just a miniscule bit more. When someone does not like something, they are never going to give 100%, maybe 99%, but never their all because there is simply something lacking. In order to measure this to the best of our abilities, unfortunately we must exclude stay at home mothers and fathers, and anyone else who may not have a job but otherwise a function, as we will be examining job satisfaction. This means a broad generalization that everyone’s job is their main function, however, we can assume that when working full time, even if one wishes their “true” function to be the time they spend arranging flowers in their free time, a large chunk of their time is spent working and therefore, no matter what they may like, their job is their main function. While of course they may have other functions, such being parents, but when a majority of their life is spent working, we can say that their function was in fact, their job. But let us get to the numbers. In a survey noted by Forbes and conducted by Gallup, only 30% of people honestly enjoyed their job, with the rest admitting they were discontent either quietly or vocally². A survey done by Metlife found that only 39% of teachers are satisfied by their job(4). And in another annual survey, the Conference Board found that only 47.7% of Americans are actually satisfied with their job¹. Using this last, more conservative statistic, this means of the 79% of the population left, only 47.7% of this figure actually enjoy their job, and therefore satisfy the requirements set by Aristotle to achieve true happiness by performing their function to the best of their ability. But let us put this into perspective.

The United States’ population as of July 4, 2013, is 316,148,990 people(5) . Of them, all 79% of them will graduate high school and be capable of achieving Aristotelian happiness, which would be about 249,757,702 people. But, of them, only 47.7% are actually fully satisfied with their job and therefore able to perform their function to the absolute best of their ability, which would leave only 119,134,423 people who are fully capable of achieving happiness, which at first appears to be many people, but excludes almost 200,000,000 people of the US population, well over half!

Based on primary education and overall job satisfaction, it is made abundantly clear that for the majority of the United States, Aristotelian happiness is simply out of the reach. While unfortunately we had to leave out those who were unemployed, we can say that with a gap of almost 200 million people, it is safe to say their numbers would have changed very little. But what does all of this mean? That the US is dismal pit of unhappiness and no job satisfaction and we are all doomed to unhappiness for eternity? Of course not! Only Aristotle and those who fall in line with his worldviews sees us as such!

1 “The Conference Board.” Job Satisfaction: 2014 Edition. June 1, 2014. Accessed December 8, 2014.

2 Gallop, Carmine. “70% Of Your Employees Hate Their Jobs.” Forbes. November 11, 2011. Accessed December 8, 2014.

3 “Public High School Four Year Graduation Rates and Event Dropout Rates.” US Department of Education. Accessed December 8, 2014.

4 Resmovits, Joy. “Teacher Survey Shows Record Low Job Satisfaction In 2012.” The Huffington Post. February 21, 2013. Accessed December 8, 2014.
5 “United States Census Bureau.” Population Clock. Accessed December 8, 2014.


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