Happiness in America: A Cultural History

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Much interest currently revolves around happiness in America, so much so that one could reasonably argue that there is a "happiness movement" afoot. The wide range of arenas in which happiness intersects reflects the subject's centrality in everyday life in America these past one hundred years. Happiness in America charts the course of happiness within American culture over the past century, and concludes that most Americans have not had success becoming appreciably happier people despite considerable efforts to do so. Rather than follow a linear path, happiness has bobbed and weaved over the decades, its arc or trajectory a twisting and unpredictable one. Happiness has also both shaped and reflected our core values, with its expression at any given time a key indicator of who we are as a people. The book thus adds a missing and valuable piece to our understanding of American culture. Beyond serving as the definitive guide to happiness in this country, Happiness in America offers readers a provocative argument that challenges standard thinking. Despite popular belief, Americans have never been a particularly happy people. Our perpetual (and futile) search for happiness indicates widespread dissatisfaction and discontent with life in general, something that will come as a surprise to many. The image of Americans as a happy-go-lucky people is thus more mythology than reality, an important finding rooted in the inherent flaws of consumer capitalism. Our competitive and comparative American Way of Life has not proven to be an especially good formula for happiness, Samuel argues, with external signs of success unlikely to produce appreciably happier people. Given these findings, he suggests readers consider abandoning their pursuit of happiness and instead seek out greater joy in life.

Product Details

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Publish Date
November 08, 2018
6.0 X 0.7 X 9.3 inches | 0.9 pounds
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About the Author

Lawrence R. Samuel is the founder of AmeriCulture, a Miami- and New York City-based consultancy dedicated to translating the emerging cultural landscape into business opportunities. He is a blogger for Psychology Today, where he has received hundreds of thousands of hits, and is often quoted in national and international media. Larry is the author of many books, including Sexidemic: A Cultural History of Sex in America (Rowman, 2013), Death, American Style: A Cultural History of Dying in America (Rowman, 2013), American Fatherhood: A Cultural History (Rowman, 2016), and Future Trends: A Guide to Decision Making and Leadership in Business (Rowman, 2018).


This is an impressively documented account of a national obsession with happiness over the past century, right through the current surge of positive psychology. The many people who tried to tell Americans how to be happy, or why they were failing, sustain the narrative, along with a sympathetic assessment of why the goal seems so elusive. The reader emerges wiser, if not happier.--Peter N. Stearns, Professor, George Mason University and author of Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society
"In addition to chronicling the self-help genre, Samuel summarizes psychology and sociology insights for a lay audience . . . . This study will interest readers interested in American culture, and Americans both enamored and skeptical of self-help.--Publishers Weekly
Recommended: Jefferson's reference to the pursuit of happiness as an endowed right reflected a common concern of his time; during the intervening years, Americans both individually and collectively came to focus on happiness as a life goal. This survey of happiness from 1920 to the present concludes that despite this country's increasing affluence, Americans' focus on materialistic gain did not lead to more happiness; by 2018, the US had slipped to 18th place in world happiness surveys. Studies have found that helping others is a more effective means of achieving happiness. Chronologically organized, the volume discusses developments in popular culture, academia, and physical and social sciences as well as critics of happiness studies. The field remains ill-defined and methodologically sloppy even as it has grown into highly profitable enterprises of self-help books, pharmaceuticals, and therapies. From 2000 onward, academic study became institutionalized with happiness journals, college courses, institutes, and departments. Scholars urged government responsibility for citizen happiness and stressed the importance of measuring well-being over economic growth. Effectively written, the book is a general survey, not an in-depth analysis; typical sources are the New York Times rather than the studies discussed.--CHOICE