The Function of Happiness in American Society

Mary Edwards

Take a look at a society, any society, and look at the people in it, they are generally appear to be happy, but how does each society achieve their version of happiness? Every society strives to be a place where people can be happy each with its own culture that defines happiness and the essentials of what makes people happy.  The United States is a country which promotes opportunity and freedom as keys to happiness in the American society but many believe that these are not enough and the real key to achieving happiness is wealth in terms of money, property and status. But in order to define how happiness manifests itself in American society, happiness must first be defined in the most general of terms in order to validate if the society fits this definition.

Happiness, though a universal and generally well-understood concept, is difficult to define.  Because it is a feeling, happiness functions in a more multi-dimensional and ever changing sense and does not easily fit a one dimensional perspective limited by a definition. Webster’s Dictionary defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment” or “a pleasurable or satisfying or satisfying experience.”[1] This definition is vague and synonymous with different principles depending on a society’s culture, socioeconomic standing, and personal values. In accordance with the differing views of happiness, a more prosperous country typically views wealth and status as the means to happiness as opposed to a less developed country whose view of happiness is based on whether basic needs are met and will focus more on the present and less about the future.

The United States is an example of the former of these two examples, wealthier with a more significant emphasis on status, and it appears from an outsiders perspective, that the people living in our society are happy in accordance to their wealth. This wealth centered view of happiness is promoted by various media from movies to television to magazines to general advertising indicating that the true American dream is based on one’s wealth and status in society. Acquisition of wealth considered a fundamental part of the American society due to the media’s portrayal of happiness and how this belief is propagated. Some of the most popular shows on American television are Keeping up with the Kardashians, The Real Housewives, and Jersey Shore. What do all of these shows have in common? They portray the so called realities of American life and are considered the realization of happiness, but in reality, these individuals are an overrepresented portion of the American population due to their wealth and fame. In reality, they represent a small portion of the population.  The excessive fascination with the famous has resulted in a normalization of their often erratic behavior and desire for their opulent lifestyles. The media’s representation of happiness in American society has resulted in a commonly accepted perspective that wealth and status is what makes one happy.

Another perspective on happiness, uses a broader definition and divorces the dependence of happiness on external influences; therefore, making it significantly more difficult to decipher which is a true measure of happiness. Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who was one of the first people to believe this type of a explanation. By studying the implications of happiness, he was able to derive a definition which considers how each person can achieve happiness in accordance with living a good life. According to his writings on the function of man in Nicomachean Ethics, “Happiness is something final and self-sufficing, and is the end of all that man does.”[2]  In this sense, happiness is a goal of life which people work to achieve throughout their life in everything that they do, therefore every action is a step towards happiness.

According to the ideas of happiness as defined by Aristotle, American’s ideology of happiness is in conflict with the true definition of happiness, for this type of happiness is put on a pedestal as something that is unattainable.  In American society, regardless of whether or not someone achieves true happiness, they are considered happy if they are wealthy and achieve status in life.  But in reality, this perspective of happiness is ultimately unachievable because there will always be someone with more wealth or higher status.  This line of thinking is based on the principle that happiness is based on how one compares to another . Unfortunately, as Theodore Roosevelt said “Comparison is the thief of joy.”  When one uses comparison as a means to determine wealth or status and therefore, ultimate happiness, then happiness is only temporary and can be lost instantly if something adversely impacts wealth or status.

According to Aristotle, happiness is equal to the means and the means is equal to the good. Although people may think they are doing that which would make them happy, they have created for themselves an unattainable goal which by its nature will make them less happy. In a way, Americans do achieve the Aristotelian view of happiness because money is the end which Americans strive for, but since there is no threshold in which the amount of money which one attains will be considered sufficient, there is an endless cycle in which people seek to achieve happiness, but it is never attained.

Another way in which happiness is measured is according to the Utilitarian view of society, which promotes happiness on a more individualized basis and the individual’s effect on society as a whole. Utilitarianism is based on the concept of utility where “an action must be judged for its consequences on the happiness of the largest number.”[3] Based on this definition, every individual must create for themselves their own version of happiness, making each person happier and therefore the society prospers as a result. According to this view of happiness, each person can achieve a greater amount of happiness because it is based on the efforts of the individual and society’s view of happiness comes subsequent to the individual.

Despite the emphasis that the American society places on wealth and status as the keys to happiness, there are actually many Americans which ignore this perspective and follow their true callings regardless of the pay or salary. Many of these people work as artists or musicians and are able to make a sufficient living while achieving true happiness for themselves because they love what they do. According to the Aristotelian view of happiness, these people would not be achieving true happiness because they are not seeking wealth as the end to their work. On the contrary, they are living their lives according to the Utilitarian view of happiness because by having a job in the arts or music, despite the fact that they are not achieving money, these people are doing what they are good at and what makes them happy, giving them and therefore society a greater amount of prosperity.

In conclusion, there are varying perspectives on how one achieves true happiness.  I believe that happiness is determined on an individual basis and if you let society dictate what should make you happy, you will ultimately be disappointed.  Idolizing the rich and famous will also result in disenchantment and the rich and famous are not nearly as happy as the media portrays. Although both the Aristotelian and Utilitarian views of happiness are correct in their own rights, it is important that you never base your happiness on a formula, and instead follow  what you perceive to be the end to happiness. I believe that you should set personal goals that are achievable and adaptable because life changes and so do people.  As my perspective on wealth,  1 Corinthians 7:31 says “those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.”  In other words, you wealth is temporary and “you can’t take it with you.”

[1] Allee, John Gage. Webster’s Dictionary. New York: Galahad Books, 1975.

[2] Aristotle, and Martin Ostwald. Nicomachean Ethics. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962.

[3] “Utilitarian Philosophy.” Utilitarian Philosophy. Accessed May 03, 2016.



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