“I am just not happy,” … said nearly every American.
According to the World Happiness Report, Americans simply aren’t happy. This is nothing relatively new. It was concluded in 2013 that roughly two-thirds of Americans were not happy. A study from 2015 produced the same results (2). Over the last decade, this data seems to be held at a somewhat constant rate (3). With markets being engineered and new, innovative products created with the goal of happiness in the last decade alone, and millions of geniously crafted self-help books, it is striking that there has not even been a dent in this dreary statistic. You would think the millions of dollars being poured into this common endeavor would at least be a little successful. But instead, this obsession with the “pursuit of happiness” has left us pursuing. And here the American cries out, with hands occupied by our iPhones and lattes and minds occupied with the practicalities of daily living and anxiety of not meeting our well thought out personal goals. Still, our hearts remain resoundingly empty.
Sure, that description can be labeled as somewhat cynical, but think about it. Think about your own heart. How many of us have all we could dream of and still feel this reverberating emptiness? There are so many factors that could serve as an explanation for why our hearts are in the state of a painful void, and I am sure I could find the statistics to show you. But, from my own experience there is one thing that encompasses all of the possibilities.
A year ago I studied abroad in the Austrian countryside. We spent our weekends travelling anywhere a Eurail pass and a couple hundred Euros could take us. When I look back on the experience, it is not the number of countries I visited or the monuments I saw that I remember. I remember how radically my heart changed that semester. When I came in, I had the fast-paced, efficiency seeking mentality that is stereotypical of American culture. I left with a contemplative attitude that enjoyed simply gazing and wondering. Since then, I have noticed I spend less time thinking about myself. I spend more time engaged in the world and present moment I live in. I feel a whole new part of me that woke up in those months. And the best part is, I feel genuinely happy.
There is not a whole lot to explain it, but the shift in attitude changed everything for me. And, there is only one cause I can point to: beauty. I went to art museums for the first time. I saw “Figaro” in Vienna. The architecture astounded me. There were so many firsts, but the most notable one remains that this was the first time I was receptive to beauty.
Not surprisingly, I was not the first to make this connection between happiness and beauty. Hildebrand wrote, “There can be no doubt that beauty is one of the great sources of joy in the human life” (8). If this joy that beauty brings is so obvious, then why did I not care about it before Austria?
I think a lot of this is simply cultural. I was not raised in an environment that was structured around receptivity. Hildebrand calls the experience of beauty a value response. This means that the person has to be in a spot where they can receive what is set before them. It profoundly puts the person in the place of receiving so much so that it is necessarily not interested in the self primarily (9). One cannot seek beauty for their own self to experience this deep joy Hildebrand speaks of. This selfless interest required for value reception is simply un-American. Nothing about it lines up with consumerism, efficiency, productivity, or personal dreams.
It isn’t about you.
Isn’t that crazy? The key to happiness is not being obsessed with your own happiness. According to Hildebrand, it would be surrendering the control of your happiness to the pursuit of beauty. Science back this up. Berkley released a study that proved that people who explicitly pursue happiness are in fact not happy (10). Happiness for the sake of happiness isn’t happiness. Beauty for the sake of beauty is happiness.
This selfless seeking of beauty is exactly what Dietrich von Hildebrand would prescribe to the modern American struggling to find joy in daily life. This does not necessarily imply a completely conscious investigation but rather an everyday inundation of beautiful things. This is where freedom lies. He says, “Genuine beauty liberates us in many ways from the force of gravity, drawing us out of the dull capacity of daily life” (11). Our daily life does not have to be the source of our misery. The work day can be transformed, home life restored, and long daily commutes to work uplifted, all by the one simple addition of beauty into our lives.
I think this conclusion shocks so many of us Americans because for the first time no matter how hard we try, no matter how productive and efficient we are, we cannot produce for our self happiness. The attitude of entitlement, that I deserve to be happy, cannot solve this conundrum. It is only in receiving that happiness be grasped. Beauty is a gift, certainly not one that can be earned nor manufactured. It is beauty that we seek. And it is principally beauty that can be the antidote to the American epidemic of unhappiness.
1) Image 1
4) Image 2
5) Image 3
6) Image 4
7) Image 5
8) Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics: Volume I, 4.
9) Ibid 10.
11) Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics: Volume I, 5.