How the pursuit of happiness has led to profound despair

Why there are so many miserable Americans

Walking shadows.
(Image credit: Andrew Cribb / Alamy Stock Photo)

For a country that likes to think of itself as the greatest in the world, the United States sure does seem to produce a lot of miserable people.

As Andrew Sullivan highlights in his recent tour de force feature in New York magazine, the key to grasping the significance of the opioid crisis for contemporary American life is the realization that it's an epidemic of people (in most cases accidentally) taking fatally high doses of powerful drugs designed to alleviate suffering. Often users become hooked on these painkillers, and end up killing themselves instead, because they're trying to relieve physical discomfort from an acute injury or chronic malady. But once the original cause fades, the contrast between the doped-up euphoria of the drug-induced high and the comparative dull, throbbing ache of life in 21st-century America frequently makes the choice clear and easy: living in a haze of ecstatic numbness is preferable, even if it runs the significant risk of accidental death.

The opioid epidemic began and remains most deadly in those parts of the United States that have fallen behind in America's relentless meritocratic rat race — first in rust belt towns and small cities with few economic prospects and fewer cultural resources, more recently among the urban poor. But even those who are closest to ending up at the very top of the meritocracy — teenagers with top grades and top test results from top schools — have their own forms of pain, their own ways of suffering, and their own (often far more expensive and far less deadly) methods of coping.

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At least that's the impression one gets from reading "Homework therapists' job: Help solve math problems, and emotional ones," an illuminating and disturbing New York Times article about the trend of upper-class families hiring therapists to help their kids manage acute problems with anxiety, stress, and the organization of their jam-packed and overly regimented lives.

It's easy to mock such people and their problems — families capable of and willing to pay professionals between $200 and $600 a pop for 50-75-minute sessions of therapy designed to soothe the addled minds of their teenaged kids with study guides, mindfulness meditation, and techniques developed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the rise of such elite treatment and coaching needs be seen as the flipside of the opioid epidemic and broadly harmonious with other socio-cultural trends that span America's many economic and political divides: the widespread prescription of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications, as well as the proliferation of diagnoses of attention deficit disorder (in both hyperactive and non-hyperactive forms), along with prescriptions of amphetamines (like Ritalin and Adderall) to treat it.

Add it all together and we get a picture of a country in which the pursuit of happiness — supposedly our founding birthright — is increasingly and inadvertently leading to lives marked by various forms of profound and debilitating unhappiness.

For the upper-middle-class and wealthy families who take advantage of homework therapy, the spiritual agony often takes the form of intense worries about failure. These are kids who've sometimes endured "coaching for kindergarten," taken myriad tests to determine whether they're unusually gifted or talented, relied on subject tutors for any classes in which an A proved elusive, as well as SAT prep and help writing college essays. They're being groomed to come out on the tippy-top of America's highly stratified income and status pyramid. Sometimes such kids need help "just to stay on pace" — because the pace is relentless — or to "steer them back to the path of achievement" if they falter even momentarily in their "hunt for a 4.0 or higher SAT scores."

Such students might need something as minimal as "'error analyses' when a biology test goes awry," while others require "exposure therapy" and other behavioral techniques to help them confront and overcome their anxieties so they can increase their "motivation and goal setting" on their way to achieving success.

There is nothing at all shameful about using therapy to help soothe anxieties and find ways to cope with stress or other forms of unhappiness. The same could be said about seeking support for those who have diagnosable learning differences or disabilities that call out for treatment or accommodation in schools and test-taking.

Still, we should be asking ourselves whether our meritocratic society might well be producing too much collateral damage — and whether the parents of these future elites are unintentionally abusing their own children psychologically in their (possibly futile) efforts to assuage their own economic and status anxieties. Not in finding therapists for their kids, but in raising them in a way that leads them to need it in the first place.

From Donald Trump's implausible victory in the 2016 presidential race, to Bernie Sanders' surprisingly vibrant primary challenge to the anointing of the neoliberal establishment's favored choice as the Democratic nominee that same year, to the subsequent shift of both parties in a more populist direction, there are ample signs that growing numbers of Americans are coming to understand that something has gone terribly wrong with their lives and their country.

For many the American dream has become an American nightmare. On an aggregate level, the economy is booming. But on a personal level, we are not thriving. On the contrary, from the underbelly of the economy to its loftiest heights, many of us are profoundly miserable, desperately seeking solace in powerful forms of self-medication and other less deadly remedies.

The first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge it as a problem. Then the really hard part begins.

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