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Are Americans Happy?

October 6, 2010

Jerry Weinberger in The City Journal:

Are Americans happy? In his unequaled Democracy in America, written after his visit to Andrew Jackson’s America, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that Americans, despite living in the most prosperous and egalitarian society in history, were restive and melancholy: “grave and almost sad even in their pleasures.” Long before psychologists discovered the paradox of choice, Tocqueville saw that the pursuit of happiness, the third of the rights proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, was a mixed blessing.

Tocqueville says that one sometimes finds in Europe a small population totally isolated from the revolutionary turbulence sweeping the Continent. These people are often ignorant, politically apathetic, and oppressed. But despite their wretchedness, “they ordinarily show a serene countenance and they often let a playful humor appear.” Not so with the rich, free, and equal Americans. The reason, says Tocqueville, is that the ignorant people don’t think of the evils they endure, while the Americans dream constantly of the goods they do not have.

For the acquisitive and free Americans, says Tocqueville, life is too short to get ahold of all the possessions and comforts that are possible to be had. And one’s station in life, whatever it is, always is bested, however marginally, by another’s. [More]

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