Human beings are not born with the necessary knowledge, experience, or habits to pursue their own happiness. Conservatism is essential, not because it teaches the contents of “happiness,” but because it understands what is required for “the pursuit.”
I spend my life standing in front of American teenagers attempting to teach them civics, economics, and world history. Lately, I have become somewhat obsessed by a particular question: what will teachers a century from now say about our particular time in the stream of history? How will this chapter in the American saga be portrayed to our posterity?
In short, what will they teach their students about the United States of America circa 2022?
The delirium of daily news and the incessant frivolity of social media hysteria probably won’t even register as a historic blip. No one cares about an arbitrary Trump tweet or outrageous college protests at Ivy League Colleges. Given enough time and perspective, even presidential scandals—both real and imagined—will fade from the privileged perch of perpetual news coverage.
Here’s what I think will transcend the tedium of outrage and quite possibly become the defining story of this particular moment in history: Americans were deeply unhappy.
Present-day Americans are cynical about the future. We are lonely. We are mired in hapless confusion and seem to exist in a sinister fog of unending malaise about how to pursue what the Ancient Greeks called “the good life” or what University of Chicago ethicist Leon Kass labeled “a worthy life.”
Future Americans will probably note a tragic diversity of manifestations of modern American gloom.
If they study our cities, they will observe rising waves of crime, chaos, and homelessness.
If they look in rural areas, they will witness surging rates of drug addiction and more than one hundred thousand drug-related deaths in a single year. They will uncover surges in suicide, anxiety, and self-harm — especially among the young.
If they look in our schools, they will observe teenagers who are monomaniacally obsessed with their devices, unable to concentrate long enough to read a book or even watch a movie, and largely ignorant of American history and our constitutional system — though still brazenly cocksure their society is systemically engaging in a sprawling yet clandestine campaign of endless oppression.
If they read studies about love and marriage, they will note that we are living through an existential decline of birth rates fueled by millennials who are largely suspicious of marriage as an institution. Seven in ten millennials claim to want a dog more than a family. The consumption of pornography has been destigmatized during the past few decades, and, to no one’s surprise, it has coincided with a profound decline in levels of interest in finding a romantic or sexual partner. Programming like “Saturday Night Live” features skits unapologetically infantilizing American men in their 30s, explicitly comparing them to Japanese infants.
What do all of these tragedies have in common?
Simply put: we Americans have forgotten how to pursue our own happiness, and conservatives should know why.
Perhaps the most detrimental facet of modern progressivism is the popular opinion it perpetuates in young people: if the world were just a little bit better, if we could just make sure the minimum wage was higher and global temperatures were lower, if everyone just treated everyone else a little bit better, if only there was less extreme income inequality, then the world would be worthy of veneration and happiness.
This belief that the “pursuit of happiness” should be a political project instead of an individual aspiration is toxic. It orients our souls toward a misplaced utopianism that will never come to pass rather than toward individual virtue, private ambition, or the cultivation of personal relationships. Even if this idealized version of society did transpire, we would just move on to a different set of problems.
When I ask my college-going daughter to explain why young people are so deeply unhappy and anxious, she never cites the absence of love, friendship, faith, or patriotism from their lives. She never catalogs the hours spent mindlessly scrolling TikTok. Instead, she talks about climate change, bad jobs, and the prominence of implicit bias. Her essential argument is, “Why would anybody be happy in this world?”
Yet, the evidence is clear. Conservatives tend to be happier than progressives.
Some argue that it is because conservatives have a built-in ideological tolerance of inequality. Others argue that it is because conservatives tend to believe in their own individual will more than liberals do, as many progressives attribute much of life’s outcomes to circumstances beyond their own control.
My argument is that conservatism is essential to the pursuit of happiness, not because it has miraculously unlocked the eternal secrets of human happiness, but because it focuses on the habits necessary for the “pursuit” itself—discipline, powerful friendships, and familial bonds to guide us and, most of all, faith in the righteousness of what we are pursuing.
American conservatism has a variety of core principles—a belief in limited government, faith in free enterprise, and a robust commitment to traditional relationships and values. Beyond policy preferences and Republican party platforms, though, the most noble and essential element in conservatism is a stentorian belief in conserving the foundational values and behaviors that empower human beings to meaningfully exercise individual liberty.
Americans are largely unhappy these days because the relationships, commitments, and institutions that domesticate excessive individualism and purposefully channel desire—churches, schools, military branches, structured families—are now frequently missing from the lives of everyday Americans.
A Jeffersonian quest for happiness requires specific action beyond different iterations of modern identity. The American Experiment was founded on an understanding that individuals have different interests, wants, and desires and, therefore, should possess agency in order to pursue happiness on their own unique terms: I want to live in California, and my brother wishes to move to Tennessee. I want to spend my weekends watching football, and my best friend wants to volunteer at the local homeless shelter. I want one child; my neighbor wants five.
Our current unhappiness, however, is the consequence, not from making poor choices and weak commitments, but from making few commitments altogether. We live in a time that endlessly prattles on about “rights,” but we have forgotten that “responsibilities” are where we find our deeper purpose. We obsess over “choice,” yet we seem strangely indifferent to the consequences of the choices we make—everything from eating processed foods and living sedentary lifestyles to avoiding parenthood for fear of losing autonomy.
Liberty without wisdom becomes empty egotism. Freedom without the mitigating power of moral virtue becomes a grotesque form of narcissism. Too many Americans have been seduced into a cult of radicalized individualism where Truth morphs into nihilism, beauty becomes indistinguishable from vulgarity, and love no longer focuses on one’s beloved but rather on shallow pursuits of lazy and casual eroticism.
No wonder we are unhappy.
Thus, the modern aspiration of conservatism must be more than riding the rising tide of anti-wokeness or defeating candidates whose policy programs we dislike. Conservatism, at its best, ensures that citizens have a driver’s license before they get behind the wheel of life. It reminds Americans that lives of deep and soaring commitments are synonymous with a substantive “pursuit of happiness.” It reminds Americans that we should value what is truly important, celebrate what is genuinely celebratory, and, above all, seek happiness and contentment in a realm largely devoid of politics.
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the recently-released Amazon best-selling book Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.