Given that the pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the American constitution, it should come as no surprise that it’s also embedded deeply in the American psyche. Tolerance levels for hard times - especially times requiring sacrifice - are low everywhere in the world, but in U.S. the reality of hard times is running straight into an historical attitude being outgunned by that reality: the attitude that things should be positive all the time; that opportunity should always be boundless; and that difficulties should be solved immediately. These axioms of the frontier meta-narrative cannot address the economic crisis, the consequences of a never-ending string of foreign wars, or the dawning realization that unilaterally dictating the course of global affairs is no longer feasible.
This is not to diminish the value of the optimism underpinning this attitude: it’s essential that people find ways to remain encouraged, to keep thinking big in times that feel small, and to sustain a willingness to take on life. But as the world’s limitations rear their head, so does the complexity of the issues we face: and that complexity demands a more nuanced emotional response to hard times if we’re to find a way forward.
Before nuance gains traction in a society, however, people almost always try fundamentalism. That has been the case historically, whenever an era is ending. People turn to dogmatic, narrow, simplistic prescriptions in the hopes that persevering in them will see them through to whatever promised land they have imagined. This is why the fundamentalist extremes of Tea Party Republicanism creates such despair across large swathes of the U.S. public: it clings ferociously to outdated perspectives on American life. It does this by continuously elevating offended rage and combativeness to center stage. It says “no” to things just because they originate from the mouths of perceived enemies. This constant chip on the shoulder uses rage for motivation, at a cost to clear thinking.
This combativeness may seem pointless, but it's not. It serves the very real purpose of grinding to a halt not just superficial optimism(not necessarily a bad thing), but also sincere efforts to resolve complex issues(a terrible thing). It relegates the latter either to “naivete’” or to being some kind of Trojan horse. In the process, the frustration of paralysis grows amongst those trying to do something concrete about issues. That in turn increases polarization, which makes a more open and widespread combativeness even more likely.
That’s because polarization brings with it a kind of “frozenness” that intensifies problems by pushing them into the future. It also weakens a society psychologically by fooling its members into thinking there are no immediate consequences to being irresponsible - to discounting the future - even though there are. It encourages seeking “happiness” exclusively in the barricaded fortresses that people falsely believe are immune to hard times: family gatherings, work projects, the temporary escapes provided by movie theaters, travel and wine clubs. Of course these temporary havens are exactly that: brief interludes that only defer the problem of facing fundamentalist negativity, rather than solving it. Not only that, the boundaries they raise against the toxicity of the outside world wear away over time. However futile the flight to such havens is, the fact it is happening so much is testimony to the power of negativity over sincerity and good will. But it’s a false power.
Taking on the incessant negativity of ideological fundamentalism is not only possible, it’s an essential reality that people are realizing has to be activated. The thousands of advocacy, social justice, human rights, and environmental protection organizations springing up throughout the world are testimony to this realization. People know they have to convert the falseness of any “happy meal” optimism they carry into something strong enough to bring forward whatever new versions of life we are in the process of building. We only settle for superficial versions of happiness when urgency is not on the horizon, but it’s next to impossible to make that case now. No matter how deep our despair at how things “used to be” runs, no matter how afraid we are of the intensification of conflict we expect is still to come, places to hide are disappearing and forcing each of us to confront our consciences and make determinations about what we’re going to do.
Before that determination can be made clearly, however, sweeping away the vestiges of false notions that happiness is something we’re entitled to experience all the time is a good psychological practice. Happiness needs to resume its’ natural place as one of the many human emotions, neither superior to nor more desirable than any of the others. That includes recognizing the fact that bemoaning the negativity of the current political climate (not just in the U.S. but worldwide) is not that different from locking yourself up in your private big screen cinema and watching old movies from the 1940s: you can do it, but the firewall between your escape and your awareness will eventually expose the “happiness” you have secured as the superficial substitute it is for facing what’s out there running wild in the wider community. The negative side of such happiness is not just its superficiality, but the accumulated angst it produces in the soul: an angst based in an awareness that knows avoidance is never a healthy long term strategy.