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Lurching Toward Happiness in America

Lurching Toward Happiness in America

Claude S. Fischer
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 152
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  • Book Info
    Lurching Toward Happiness in America
    Book Description:

    The promise of America has long been conceived as the promise of happiness. Being American is all about the opportunity to pursue one's own bliss. But what is the good life, and are we getting closer to its attainment? In the cacophony of competing conceptions of the good, technological interventions that claim to help us achieve it, and rancorous debate over government's role in securing it for us, every step toward happiness seems to come with at least one step back. InLurching toward Happiness in America, acclaimed sociologist Claude Fischer explores the data, the myths, and history to understand how far America has come in delivering on its promise. Are Americans getting lonelier? Is the gender revolution over? Does income shape the way Americans see their life prospects? In the end, Fischer paints a broad picture of what Americans say they want. And, as he considers how close they are to achieving that goal, he also suggests what might finally get them there.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-32289-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    (pp. IX-XII)

    What are we to make of the striking second sentence of the Declaration of Independence—that the new nation would be dedicated to defending not only a citizen’s life and liberty, but also “the pursuit of happiness”? The phrase replaced “property” in the trio of “unalienable rights” that had been circulating among insurrectionists in the colonies. Whatever the thinking that led to that change, it exemplified the egalitarianism of the nation-inprocess: each person, propertied or not, ought to be sufficiently unencumbered to run after his own happiness, whatever doing so entailed. “Person,” of course, was implicitly qualified to exclude slaves...

  4. Part I: Plumbing Unhappiness

    • 1. Happiness Policy
      (pp. 3-12)

      Since at least the 1950s, academics have analyzed surveys asking people how happy or satisfied they feel. To assess morale we’ve used fuzzy questions such as, “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days—would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” We’ve compared, say, women to men and the poor to the rich. Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven started compiling the findings into hisWorld Database of Happinessback in the 1980s.

      We know so far that peope’s reports of immediate joy and misery fluctuate from activity to activity—sex is...

    • 2. E-Disharmony?
      (pp. 13-18)

      Over the last few yearsThe Atlantichas found a rich source of click bait by featuring arguments that the Internet is destroying the good life. In 2008 Google was making us stupid; in 2012 Facebook was making us lonely; and in 2013 online dating was “threatening monogamy.”

      The latest argument is that e-dating makes it so easy for people to meet romantic partners that it undermines their commitments to any one person. The central proof author Dan Slater provides is the extended tale of one “Jacob,” a man who fires up his dating sites while his latest girlfriend is...

    • 3. The Loneliness Scare
      (pp. 19-28)

      Headlines inThe New York Timesimply that if you’re not feeling lonely, you may be the lonely exception: “Sad, Lonely World Discovered in Cyberspace”; “Alone in the Vast Wasteland”; and “The Lonely American Just Got a Bit Lonelier.” Add books such asBowling Alone, The Lonely American, andAlone Together, and you might think that there is an epidemic of loneliness.

      An endemic epidemic, perhaps, because we have received such diagnoses for generations. The 1950s—the era of large families, crowded churches, and schmoozing suburbanites—brought us handwringing books such asMan Alone: Alienation in Modern Societyand the...

    • 4. Is the Gender Revolution Over?
      (pp. 29-38)

      Nothing transformed American lives in the last century more than the gender revolution. The empowerment of women redefined courtship, sex, marriage, and child rearing. Women’s entry into the paid workforce, in particular, upended the bourgeois Victorian family model in which “he” battles in the marketplace and “she” nurtures in the home. In 1950 about one in five married women went off to work; in 2000 about three in five did. Now, after decades of such astonishing change, the gender revolution appears over—before its completion.

      In June 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former high-flyer in the State Department, wrote a declaration...

    • 5. The Leisure Gap
      (pp. 39-48)

      Summer in America: folks sprucing up RVs, parents packing kids’ camp gear, airlines adding flights, and hotels raising prices. We know to expect much longer lines at the airports and traffic jams on the way to the beach. But what seems like a flood to us is a trickle compared to the tsunami of summer holidaymakers in Europe, as anyone who has been sardined into a European train, plane, or lane at the beginning of July and August knows.

      Americans just don’t vacation like other people do. Western European laws require at least ten and usually more than twenty days....

    • 6. How to Be Poor
      (pp. 49-58)

      You’re working a casual job, maybe in construction or at the gas station, paid a bit over the minimum wage with no benefits—one of those jobs that comes and goes. A buddy wakes you up with a desperate call: he needs a ride right now; you’re the only one; at least your car runs. He lent you $200 last Christmas when you were scuffling; he’s one of the old school crowd who party together and look out for each other. If you say yes, you will probably be late to work and might get fired. On the other hand,...

    • 7. Extremely Local
      (pp. 59-68)

      Americans care about, prefer, and trust the local over the national. On the whole, we seem to believe our happiness and well-being depends on it. But we bear some serious consequences for this ideal.

      A survey experiment reported in 2012 illustrates this preference: respondents who read a story about an American soldier killed in Afghanistan were more likely to turn against the war if he was identified as coming from the respondent’s state. And in 1998 Tom W. Smith of the National Opinion Research Center collected surveys showing that on topics ranging from schools to violence to morality, Americans rated...

  5. Part II: Policy for a Happier America

    • 8. The Good Life
      (pp. 71-88)

      Battles over social policy are fought in the trenches by hardened politicians. But scholars serve, too. They are the ammunition mules, providing the combatants with ideas, arguments, and evidence. Following the ghetto riots of the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson empaneled a committee of wise men who, in turn, retained many scholars to help the president defend Great Society programs against the anticipated backlash from “middle America.” The Kerner Commission concluded on the basis of social science research that the uprisings were the product of poverty and white racism. Richard Nixon spoke up quickly for many in middle America when he charged...

    • 9. Accidental Billionaire
      (pp. 89-108)

      “It’s not about you,” declares Reverend Rick Warren, the celebrity minister and hair-blown invocationer of Barack Obama’s first inauguration, in his bestsellerThe Purpose-Driven Life. It’s about God’s purpose for you. Malcolm Gladwell’sOutliersand Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly’sUnjust Desertsalso declare that “it’s not about you.” For that matter, it’s also not about Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Beyoncé, Gordie Howe, or any other wildly successful individual; it’s about the circumstances you and they were lucky enough to fall into.

      Both of these books argue that a person’s success depends more on being born in the right place...

    • 10. Mind the Gap
      (pp. 109-130)

      The strong version of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s argument inThe Spirit Levelimplies that President Obama’s fight to reform health care was pointless. Extending the availability of health insurance cannot substantially improve Americans’ health. Instead, the president would make us all happier, healthier, and longer-lived, their logic suggests, if he could get the richest, say, 5 percent of Americans to leave the country.

      Wilkinson and Pickett, eminent health scholars from the United Kingdom, present considerable evidence correlating unequal incomes in nations or American states with negative outcomes in physical health, mental balance, levels of violence, social integration, teen...

    (pp. 131-132)
    (pp. 133-133)
  8. Back Matter
    (pp. 134-135)