We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.—The Declaration of Independence
Are you happy right now? Is happiness something you can control? Or do you have no control over it? Or do you have some control but your happiness also depends on a little bit of luck?
And what is “the pursuit of happiness?” Why do we have a right to it? Why do we have a right to the pursuit of happiness and not to happiness itself? And, if we are pursuing it, how do we catch it? And why do I have a picture of the Jonas Brothers at the top of this email? These questions and more addressed below.
This week’s content:
- The Impossible Dream – Lapham’s Quarterly
- Are McMansions Making People Any Happier – The Atlantic
- Having a Library or Cafe Down the Block Could Change Your Life – The Atlantic
- Five Lies Our Culture Tells – David Brooks
- The Entrepreneur’s Hidden Battle with Depression – Faith Driven Entrepreneur Podcast with yours truly
Read widely. Read wisely.
1. The Impossible Dream
Lapham’s Quarterly (12 minutes)
One of the better articles I’ve read this year. The author David Wooten considers what the pursuit of happiness is and takes us on a tour of western philosophy from the Greeks through the enlightenment with stops along the way to consider subjectivism, religious wars, and consumer culture. Well worth your time.
John Locke, in his Two Treatises of 1690, said we are all created equal and have inalienable rights, including those to life and liberty. But for Locke the third crucial right was the right to property. In Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, also published in 1690, he wrote about the pursuit of happiness, but it follows from his account there that there can be no right to pursue happiness because we will pursue happiness come what may. The pursuit of happiness is a law of human nature (of what we now call psychology), just as gravity is a law of physics. A right to pursue happiness is no more necessary than a right for water to run downhill.
Jefferson was well aware that being free to pursue happiness does not mean that everyone will be happy. And yet, as Adam Sternbergh explains, we trick ourselves into thinking we know what is needed to be happy: a promotion, a new car, a vacation, a good-looking partner. We believe this even though we know there are plenty of people with good jobs, new cars, vacations, and attractive partners, and many of them are miserable. But they, too, imagine their misery can be fixed by a bottle of Pétrus or a yacht or public adulation. In practice, our strategies for finding happiness are usually self-defeating. There’s plenty of empirical evidence to suggest that much of what we do to gain happiness doesn’t pay off. It seems that aiming at happiness is always a misconceived project; happiness comes, as John Stuart Mill insisted, as the unintended outcome of aiming at something else. “The right to the pursuit of happiness,” wrote Aldous Huxley, “is nothing else than the right to disillusionment phrased in another way.”
2. Are McMansions Making People Any Happier?
The Atlantic (6 minutes)
More is better, right? It is an unexamined assumption for most of us that if we get more stuff, we’ll be better off. We’ll be happier. So what happens when we get more house?
American homes are a lot bigger than they used to be. In 1973, when the Census Bureau started tracking home sizes, the median size of a newly built house was just over 1,500 square feet; that figure reached nearly 2,500 square feet in 2015.
This rise, combined with a drop in the average number of people per household, has translated to a whole lot more room for homeowners and their families: By one estimate, each newly built house had an average of 507 square feet per resident in 1973, and nearly twice that—971 square feet—four decades later. But according to a recent paper, Americans aren’t getting any happier with their ever bigger homes. “Despite a major upscaling of single-family houses since 1980,” writes Clément Bellet, a postdoctoral fellow at the European business school INSEAD, “house satisfaction has remained steady in American suburbs.
3. Having a Library or Cafe Down the Block Could Change Your Life
A new study shows that living near community-oriented public and commercial spaces brings a host of social benefits, such as increased trust, decreased loneliness, and a stronger sense of attachment to where we live.
Americans who live in communities with a rich array of neighborhood amenities are twice as likely to talk daily with their neighbors as those whose neighborhoods have few amenities. More important, given widespread interest in the topic of loneliness in America, people living in amenity-rich communities are much less likely to feel isolated from others, regardless of whether they live in large cities, suburbs, or small towns. Fifty-five percent of Americans living in low-amenity suburbs report a high degree of social isolation, while fewer than one-third of suburbanites in amenity-dense neighborhoods report feeling so isolated.
4. Five Lies Our Culture Tells
David Brooks in the New York Times (5 minutes)
FROM BROOKS: College mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans. At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.
MAX: This is another must-read this week.
Career success is fulfilling. This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.
Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. I remember when the editor of my first book called to tell me it had made the best-seller list. It felt like … nothing. It was external to me.
The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.
5. The Entrepreneur’s Hidden Battle with Depression
My Faith Driven Entrepreneur Interview (7 minutes)
A few months ago I wrote a Weekend Reader edition on the topic of entrepreneurs and depression (here’s the link). Founders of businesses suffer an extremely high rate of mental health issues including anxiety and depression. I wrote about my own journey in this area. My friend Henry Kaestner, of Sovereign’s Capital and The Faith Driven Entrepreneur, reached out to invite me to talk about it on their podcast. I was glad to do it. This is a link to that conversation.
Depression shouldn’t be a topic that hides in the shadows. The less it is talked about, the more power it has over you. Depression is the opposite of happiness, so I’m including it here.
So, why are the Jonas Brothers featured in this email? Well, there is a new documentary about them called “Chasing Happiness” that I watched with my daughter this weekend. And we watched that because on Tuesday night I’m taking her to their concert. The JoBros, you say? Yes. They are back. The documentary isn’t half bad (okay I loved it) and it examines what it is that makes us happy.
The Jonas boys were sons of a pastor in New Jersey. They sang in the church on Sundays and eventually started performing outside of church as well. Both Nick and Joe got roles on Broadway as kids. When they were young teens they started writing their own songs and got signed to a label. In less than two years they rocketed to fame – selling out arenas, producing platinum albums and adding TV and film credits to their resumes. They were living the particularly modern version of the American dream: wealth, fame, success.
But the success came at a cost. Although the boys famously wore promise rings and didn’t fall into rockstar-style libertine excess, members of their father’s church were upset that they weren’t singing Christian songs and they soon asked him to step down as their pastor. Eventually, their mother and father divorced. Later, the boys broke up their band because they got tired of each other and were no longer having fun.
The story gets interesting after the breakup. Nick became a solo artist and had several chart-topping hits. Joe formed a new group called DNCE and got nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy for their song, “Cake By the Ocean.” Kevin, meanwhile, got married and had kids. He didn’t do any real solo work. He was “the other Jonas brother.” The only limelight he saw was from the shadow cast by his brothers. But he had a happy marriage and two little kids. And the film leads you to wonder who was happier during this period – Nick, Joe or Kevin.
Eventually, the boys get back together. In explaining why, Nick says, “I missed my brothers and I thought that maybe by doing this with them again, I could become a little bit happier.”
Graduation speeches are littered with advice to “follow your dreams” and “do what makes you happy.” But while we all know we want to feel happy, it’s not clear that we always know what actually makes us happy. As the first article argues, we pursue things that we assume will be pleasurable and find that they give us diminishing amounts of pleasure over time. Meanwhile the social science research is pretty clear: what makes you happy in the long-run is not what you do for yourself but what you do for others; our happiness is defined not by getting what we desire, but by the strength of our commitments to things greater than ourselves – things like friendship, family, faith. The David Brooks article does a terrific job of breaking this down (I think it’s one of the major themes in all his writing).
In the end, this pop-candy film actually carries a rather deep idea: happiness for the Jonases was defined less by the number of record sales and concert tickets and more by their commitment to each other as brothers. That was a surprise and a good one.
Are the Jonas Brothers now my emblems of success? Do I think they are an unending fount of inspiration and wisdom? Will they be regular features of this newsletter? No. No. And No.
But now I’m actually kind of excited to go to the concert.
Read widely. Read wisely.