Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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July 6, 2013

Post-Fourth Life, Liberty, and the American struggle for elusive happiness

Summer is traditionally the time to be happy — maybe. Now that the Fourth of July has passed, however, many retailers are already making plans to wrap up the seasonal inventory, sell the remaining charcoal grills on hand, get rid of those swimsuits left on the racks, and move on to fall. Some of the next trucks into town will surely be filled with school supplies. Little League football is next on the agenda.

Happiness is not a uniquely American trait but an interesting article by Jeffrey Kluger called “the pursuit of happiness” begins with the idea that we in the United States are “wired to be happy.” Exactly what makes people happy is hard to define, of course, no matter where they live.

For instance, some think that it is impossible to be happy up here in the mountains where there are no professional ‘big league’ sports teams. I heard someone say at the season-opening bash for the Bluefield Blue Jays that one of the premier satellite TV systems gives us Baltimore, Washington, and Cleveland games free on their package because the satellite can’t exactly figure out where we are on the grid since we don’t have a major league club within 200 miles of anywhere.

Without knowing exactly where you are on your employment schedule, it is possible that the end of the career is in sight. For a few years now I have been repeatedly asked when I am going to retire and maybe it is a natural concern to wonder if a person should disappear from the work place at about the same time silver (gray?) hair appears atop one’s noggin. This “hair today, gone tomorrow” philosophy has not quite convinced me I should quit my day job or that I would be happier to stay at home. The alarm clock is still set, by the way.

Still, we are surrounded by reminders about the best ways to stay happy. Recently, I noticed a framed message on an office wall proclaiming “It’s the journey, not the destination.” According to real people, that is not the majority opinion in America. In a recent poll conducted in part by Time magazine, slightly more than a third of U.S. citizens surveyed were happiest while working toward a goal. Almost 60 percent, though, said they were most happy when they had achieved it. I would agree with that. How many of you are more happy to be sawing wood, or more pleased when the stuff is cut, stacked, and finished? Be honest.

Not too many years ago, there was a hit song entitled “One Day at a Time” and the message was clear. It was a biblical reference and all are free to look it up, if you wish.

For Americans, anyway, winning is generally a big deal. In fact, part of the article talked about how our attitudes have changed over the last half century and historians would have to wonder if the victory totals have shaped our declining happiness. For instance, Americans and the Allied countries of Britain and Russia, among others, led the way to victory in World War II. It was a whole-hearted effort with no thought of containment or situational strategy. We were out to win, period.

That same 100 percent “must win” goal has never been the same since, especially since the development of the atomic bomb. Countries cannot go all-out in war any more because if the right buttons are pushed then life as we know it will be over in hours.

That changes things. In recentdecades, U.S. citizens have developed a host of ways to keep themselves as happy as possible, although the published numbers are certainly on the downturn. For whatever it is worth, the decline started at about the same time I entered college. While I take no credit for turning the country in the wrong direction, and likewise do not recall that all my joy ended once I entered an English 101 class, I am a little concerned that maybe there is a connection. That was also about the time that Richard Nixon was re-elected but he is gone and I will not blame him, either.

It is not that we aren’t trying to have fun. In 2012, Americans spent $118 billion in travel abroad. I went to Washington but although that might be considered a foreign country by many, I look at it much more kindly since the Redskins now play over Maryland. (Cowboy fan, you know.) Last year, we sports fans collectively shelled out more than $25 billion for tickets and related materials.  

Movies, too, are high on the list of entertainment expenses, as we along with our Canadian neighbors spent more than $11 billion on tickets. As we ponder the many ways to have summer (or any other kind of seasonal) fun, it is worth noting that Americans spend nearly $140 billion annually on recreational equipment and even more — $200 billion — on electronic wizardry. I imagine an ATV is not exactly cheap these days and those HD, digital, 3-D, plasma, flat screen video entertainment centers formerly known as televisions force one to dig deep in the purse, as well. We do work awfully hard to have fun.

Politics can be fun, too. The survey says that Republicans are happier than Democrats, more likely to be married, and probably more religious. If you are a woman and a Republican, those happy numbers are probably even higher. So there you have it. I am happier now, having finished this column. The destination has outdone the journey.

Still, I wonder what my hero Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democrat who served a record 12 years and enjoyed four presidential election victories would think about all those cheerful Republicans any time someone plays his theme song “Happy Day Are Here Again!”

Larry Hypes, a teacher at Tazewell High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist.

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