There is a lot of sloppy thinking in this NYTimes article about happiness, but I want to comment on it anyway.
It fits the following well-worn sunday magazine article template. A new study finds something noteworthy. (In this case, it’s “people who are happy also exhibit negative traits”). Exaggerate the findings to make it seem more noteworthy. (”The burgeoning new science of happiness…”). Don’t dwell on actual details of the methodology, or of the finding. Make some generalizations and exaggerate wildly, but with guarded phrasing. Use it as a launch pad to discuss things you sort of felt like talking about anyway.
It’s this last thing is the thing that I think will be obsolete in journalism within ten years: the a priori conclusion, validated by selectively chosen facts. Why will it be obsolete? Because bloggers do it so much better! An old medium eventually grudgingly quits doing things that newer media do better (when was the last time you heard a new radio drama?). Sometimes this is bad, but in this case, I think it’s good. Because anyone who has been quoted in a newspaper knows that this methodology of just choosing what you already believe to be true is not just confined to the magazine or to the opinion pages.
That said, I will now use this article as a launch pad to discuss the thing I wanted to discuss in the first place, which is the pursuit of happiness. The author writes
The news that a little evil lurks inside happiness is disquieting. After all, we live in a nation whose founding document holds the pursuit of happiness to be a God-given right.
Now, anybody who has spent more than two seconds thinking about the curious wording of the Declaration of Independence here will note that it is not “life, liberty, and happiness”, but “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. The pursuit, not the achievement. So, the implication is that happiness is always somewhere out in front, like the carrot on the stick, like the eternally hungry Tantalus reaching for food. In my book, if there is such a thing as a national virtue or a national vice, this subltle distinction is the wellspring of both. (The astute will notice that I just exaggerated wildly, but with guarded phrasing— but it’s OK! I’m blogging!)
So, I think the author is barking up the wrong founding document if he’s looking for a citation that we, as a culture, value happiness. I’m not entirely sure you could find such a document. And that’s A-OK.