A country that's failing to pursue happiness

Posted December 4, 2018 7:24 a.m. EST

ALBANY, N.Y. _ For a nation founded on the right to pursue happiness, we sure are bad at it.

The latest evidence comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which last week said that American life expectancy is declining. The reason: Rising suicide and drug-overdose rates.

The life-expectancy drop is small _ just a tenth of a year, from 78.7 in 2016 to 78.6 in 2017 for the total U.S. population _ but the CDC has now reported declines for three consecutive years, making this the longest-lasting downturn since World War I.

The trend is essentially without parallel in the Western world. It should shock us.

If you read this newspaper, you know upstate New York is hardly immune from the trend's causes. Obituaries for drug-overdose deaths appear in these pages with distressing regularity. Meanwhile, suicides in New York have spiked 29 percent since 1999 largely because of increases in rural upstate counties.

What this region, and so much of the country, is experiencing suggests nothing less than an epidemic of unhappiness and despair _ a deeply worrying spiritual crisis and loss of connection, a social catastrophe. Put simply, we're not living right.

I won't be the first to note that the life-expectancy decline is happening despite a booming economy. That's evidence the gains are being distributed unevenly _ you know, the rich getting richer while too many others stagnate _ which is certainly true.

But it is also a reminder that the economy isn't everything.

That observation borders on banal, in part because skepticism toward our relentless focus on money and growth is a consistent theme in American history _ from Henry David Thoreau writing on the spiritual emptiness of the working life to Robert F. Kennedy speaking on the meaninglessness of the gross-domestic product.

"We seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things," Kennedy said in 1968, adding that GDP "does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials."

It is obvious stuff, really, and yet we continue to act as if the accumulation of more and more and more cheap plastic crap from China will make us happier. We make the economy a singular priority. We've turned Christmas and Hanukkah into a frenzy of buying and spending.

The suggestion here isn't that work is unimportant. Meaningful work is an essential part of a consequential life, and those of us in upstate New York know better than most how the absence of it devastates communities.

Yet the suicide rate is at its highest level since 1968, despite dramatic increases in material wealth. Our houses are bigger, and we've filled them with more stuff. We own more TVs and cars. We carry high-powered computers in our pockets, putting hilarious cat videos at our fingertips. Real GDP has more than tripled over the last five decades.

Yet study after study shows we aren't any happier. It's obvious that prosperity as defined by the economists and politicians is a bunch of hooey. We've been told a lie.

A logical response to the suicide and overdose epidemics would be a national conversation on happiness and what contributes to it; on how to repair the broken bonds that have made loneliness a defining feature of American life; on what a true "pursuit of happiness" would really mean.

Nobody has all the answers. We're all still figuring out how best to live. We are only human.

But there are truths we once knew yet seem to have forgotten _ or have chosen to ignore. Any national pivot toward a true culture of happiness would stop us from seeing empty busyness as a virtue. It would mean releasing kids to play outside and refusing to treat them like test-taking automatons who must excel NOW for their economic futures.

We would probably spend fewer hours staring at screens and shopping in malls. We would spend more of our precious time with our children and grandchildren, maybe doing nothing but talking. Or drawing. Or reading. We would commute less and look at the stars more, reveling in the divine vastness and remembering that we really are so small.

Many of us would volunteer more in this happier country. Others might return to church. Some might go on long walks for no reason at all. Others might sit on the porch and watch them. We would laugh more and try to worry less. We would sleep more. Even adults would remember to play with friends.

We would care less about owning the latest device made by distant wage slaves and care more about spending time with family. We would worry less about the alleged dangers of strangers. We would try to get to know our neighbors, even the annoying ones.

We would hate less. We would love more.

Contact columnist Chris Churchill at 518-454-5442 or email cchurchill(at)timesunion.com

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