All human beings may come equipped with the pursuit-of-happiness impulse - the urge to find lusher land just over the hill, fatter buffalo in the next valley - but it's Americans who have codified the idea, written it into the Declaration of Independence and made it a central mandate of the national character. American happiness would never be about savor-the-moment contentment. That way led the reflective cafe culture of the Old World - fine for Europe, not for Jamestown. Our happiness would be bred, instead, of an almost adolescent restlessness, an itch to do the Next Big Thing.The article goes on to explain that Americans are actually genetically more adventure-seeking and inclined to take risks than people in other parts of the world. That, naturally, the people who strove to reach America in the first place were those sorts of restless entrepreneurs, and it remains in our heritage.
Here in Middle America I am spending a lot of time reflecting on American-ness, and also on happiness. Time says that in middle age we are at a low point for personal happiness. But I'm happier and more at peace than ever. Maybe it just gets better from here?
As for American-ness. Sigh. So much of America is like these suburbs. It is such an insulated world - there is space, time, and money for all your material desires, and you never need to think about anything very challenging or uncomfortable, or confront people or lifestyles very different from your own. There are certainly immigrants here - but they are doing all they can, at least externally, to Americanize and blend in. And here, it is about the car in your driveway, the square footage of your pre-fabricated home, the careful lawn maintenance, finding the best parking space at the mall.
As much as I find this all intellectually suffocating, there is a visceral comfort here. It's all so understandable. But coming back to Time's point, I recognize this American adventure-seeking quality as intrinsic to who I am. How do these two things relate?
Maybe being here, this month, is about bringing me back to earth. And recognizing that, as much as I like to think of myself as a firebrand, as an individualist, whatever you want to say - there are huge sides of me that crave routine and ease. That if I stayed long enough in a place like this, the adventure of finding a new television station might suffice. And this does not mean I would be unhappy. But it does mean that I wouldn't be giving my all to the world.
On my nightstand this week is American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, which seems quite appropriate. Next on my list is The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs.