A New American Dream

Mass pillow fight in New York’s Union Square, March 2008. Photo by Waisum Tam/flickr: urbanblitz
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When we decided to focus this issue of YES! on the theme of happiness, we didn’t know the bottom would be falling out of the world economy just as the articles started rolling in. And we didn’t know we’d be watching poll results down to the wire on election day.

We gathered around our recycled barn-wood conference table as the stories of bank collapses and foreclosures grew more ominous, and we wondered aloud whether people who were losing their retirement savings, jobs, or homes would get anything out of an issue on happiness? And what might we hope for from an Obama presidency?

The more we thought about it, the more certain we became that an issue on happiness is, if anything, more relevant in a time of political transformation and economic crisis.

For one thing, most of the factors that make us happy have little to do with money, stuff, or the stock market. True, the economic downturn threatens many people’s sense of security. But it’s a mistake to assume that the expanding, speculative market we are used to resulted in a joyful society.

During the supposed boom times of the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s, even while money was flowing through the country at a dizzying rate, the average citizen was just getting by. A small fraction at the top accumulated enormous wealth, but most of us saw our incomes stagnate while the price of food, energy, and housing rose dramatically.

Nor was income inequality the only problem. The lopsided power and over-consumption at the top actually diminished our real wealth, which is found in resilient and diverse ecosystems, clean water and air, strong communities, healthy and educated people, a government that serves everyone, and an economy that provides meaningful work and produces things we need.

So maybe it’s better that we go through this crisis now, while we have some ecological resilience, while some of our Main Street economy remains, and—especially with fresh leadership in the White House—an ability to seek solutions together.

It’s not only financial markets that have collapsed; it’s also the philosophy that gave money precedence over all else. With market fundamentalism and the politics of divisiveness crumbling, spaces are opening for new approaches. Divisive me-first politics and trash-the-planet-to-make-money economics are on the way out.

So what ideas and guiding principles will take their place?

In a time of chaos, those who are clear about what’s important, who listen and create inclusive conversations, and who work across race, class, gender, and age lines, may have far more influence than they imagine.

This is a time when new ideas and structures can take root and quickly flourish in the spaces left vacant by dying hidebound institutions. We’ll want to base this new world on our sense of connection, joy, and gratitude—not on fear and exclusion. So exploring happiness may be just what is called for.

In these pages, you’ll find people who are creating their own forms of happiness: a homeowner who turned to extreme downsizing and a former drug dealer who found healing through restoring prairie ecosystems. A family experiments with a no-impact Christmas, and a daughter discovers a gift embedded in the grief of losing her mother.

You’ll find out what scientists and spiritual practitioners say about happiness. And you’ll learn practices that can help you access a reservoir of well-being that can get you through rocky times while we work together for a happier world for all people and all life.

Sarah van Gelder wrote this article as part of Sustainable Happiness, the Winter 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is Executive Editor of YES! Magazine. Photo of Sarah van Gelder
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