Americans must again pursue true happiness
By Bill Connor
In last few decades, polls have shown Americans becoming progressively more depressed and suicidal. Between 1999 and 2018, the CDC reported a 35 percent rise in suicide rates. Depression rates have skyrocketed in recent years, with a 63 percent increase in depression for the 12–17-year-old age group between 2013 and 2016. Meanwhile, 18–34-year-olds saw a 47 percent increase in depression during the same period. The number of those who have identified as “very happy” has plummeted in the past few decades from the substantial majority of Americans in 1970 to under 30 percent today.
The malaise of unhappiness has wrought the skyrocketing rates of drug addiction, particularly among teenagers. Among Western nations (most with lesser per capita average income) America is not even near the top ten or even 15 in happiness. The loss of happiness during the past few decades, and the spiraling trends toward depression and suicide, are part of a larger trend. It’s a trend explaining much of what we see in many people turning on the American system and being enticed toward the false “utopia” of socialism. A trend that explains the success in those creating group divisions by inciting jealousy of alleged “privilege” of certain groups more than others. A dynamic that could potentially end the dream of our founders and the greatness of America if not reversed. Let me explain.
First, it’s important to understand what the founders meant by “pursuit of happiness.” On the one hand, Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence, was a follower of British political philosopher John Locke. Jefferson followed many of Locke’s writings, but diverged from Locke’s “property” after the other two primary rights of life and liberty. Jefferson kept life and liberty in the Declaration but used the term “pursuit of happiness” in place of property. Some have argued that pursuit of happiness equated directly with property, but that doesn’t fit what we know about Jefferson and the other founders. It is clear the founders believed in property rights, which derived from mixing labor to create ownership. It is also clear that Jefferson claimed to be an Epicurean. Greek philosopher Epicurus believed that the cornerstone of happiness was “tranquility and rationality” and that “a just man is most free from disturbance” and an unjust man is the most unfree. Like the other founders, Jefferson believed happiness required freedom, including the freedom to own property, but happiness was predicated on virtue in the exercise of that freedom. Washington similarly wrote “happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected,” causing him to “practice the latter.”
The founders generally did not believe morality/virtue could come without a foundation of religion. John Adams famously wrote: “This Constitution was made for a moral and religious people; it is wholly unsuited for the governance of any other.” Washington called “religion and morality” the “great pillars of human happiness.” Quote after quote from the founders makes clear the absolute imperative of virtue for pursuing happiness in finding the tranquility of living a just and virtuous life — and furthermore, that the eternal truths of the Bible were indispensable toward the moral and happy life.
The founders’ understanding of happiness is proven correct throughout our nation’s history. Alexis de Tocqueville said of America in the 1830s, “There is no country on Earth in which the Christian religion retains greater sway over the souls of men than in America.” America was also noted for being the freest and happiest of nations, drawing millions of immigrants. That has seemed to reverse throughout the past half century. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, writing from a secular perspective, has noted that despite relatively high incomes, America has become less charitable and less trusting of leadership and institutions to make moral decisions for the greater good. According to Sacks: “America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis, not an economic crisis.”
The decline of happiness is linked with the decline of religion throughout the same period. Every poll for decades has shown the decline in religion in America, and those polls follow the noted trend of unhappiness. Of note, recent Pew polls have shown that those identifying as “very religious” rate themselves as “very happy” a third more than the nonreligious. The very religious are also at the top in charitable giving and participation in civics organizations. According to Pew Research Center, in 2009 77 percent of Americans identified as Christian, and yet by 2019 only 65 percent identified as Christians. During that time the “nones” (no religion) almost doubled and atheists doubled. Those trends have increased since the onset of COVID-19, and the trends toward depression and suicide noted by the CDC have similarly skyrocketed.
It is time America understands what it means to be happy, and it’s not primarily about becoming individually rich and self-centered. We must have our rights, including our right to property, and those God-given rights must be respected. At the same time, we must again base our personal lives on virtue found in religion and moral duty, the system of virtue our founders sought for happiness as just people through living the eternal biblical truths our nation followed in rising to greatness. It’s time to be virtuous and great and happy again.
Bill Connor is a 1990 Citadel graduate, 30-year Army infantry colonel (ret.) and combat veteran. He is a writer and attorney and lives in the Charleston area.