The pursuit of wealth

| Staff Columnist

The other night, while I was changing channels trying to find something to watch, I noticed that “The Pursuit of Happyness” was playing. Despite my adoration for both Will Smith and his son in this film, there’s something that always bothers me—why isn’t the film called “The Pursuit of Wealth”? Wouldn’t that be more fitting? Well, obviously the audience wouldn’t respond as well to a film with that title. But isn’t wealth more compatible with the film’s message? Chris, the main character in the film, is seeking business success, with the assumption that affluence will lead to overall life satisfaction.

This is what makes this film so undeniably American. In the United States, the pursuit of the American dream shows an explicit link between wealth and happiness. This association is deeply embedded in the history of our country. “The pursuit of happiness” is one of the “inalienable rights” set forth in the Declaration of Independence. This began the tradition of individual liberties in the United States, where Americans in this country’s free-market system of capitalism were granted the freedom to overcome social or economic barriers and rise to prosperity. From its inception, our country has associated wealth with happiness, materialism with satisfaction. It is this belief that makes capitalism thrive.

The “Pursuit of Happyness” explicitly illustrates the cultural ideology derived from capitalism. This ideology teaches that hard work and dedication lead to wealth, and wealth leads to happiness.

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In reality there are numerous problems with this ideology. The trajectory does not always lead from one to the other. Happiness doesn’t always follow wealth. Studies show that while wealth can have some effects on happiness, it’s only one of many factors. Have you ever looked at BusinessWeek’s listing of the world’s happiest countries? The U.S. isn’t even on it! Instead, Denmark stands as the happiest country on the planet, with a gross domestic product per capita of only $37,400. Maybe in the sequel to “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Chris should pick up and move to Denmark. Apparently that is where the majority of people are truly content.

Another aspect of the trajectory also breaks down. Hard work doesn’t always lead to wealth. The reality of our world is that hard work and dedication are less reliable than ever as mechanisms to gain wealth. In the worst recession since the Great Depression, getting rich is not as easily attainable as it was before. Unemployment plagues our country, and thousands of hardworking men and women find themselves without jobs or any sort of monetary support.

How do we change an equation so deeply entrenched in our culture? To dissociate wealth and happiness would undermine the very foundation of our society. We’re constantly exposed to films, shows, books, family, news, everything and anything telling us that to earn money is to be happy. It’s something that we so rarely question. Yet in today’s world, it must be questioned.

With the recession hitting hard, and people becoming frustrated with the economic downturn, Americans may be forced to seek out alternative routes to happiness. While the recession threatens this country’s very stability, it may in fact have some lasting benefits. The American public may be forced to focus its attention on greater well-being, and away from wealth, to attain true happiness. Despite many Americans fearing the social reforms made by the Obama administration, perhaps a slight turn away from capitalism will prove to be advantageous. It may not be a coincidence that Denmark, a country that prides itself in assuring that every citizen is well-cared for, appears to have found the true path to happiness.

Amanda Jacobowitz is a sophomore in Arts & Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at arjacobo@gmail.com.

  • Not as enlightened, but still…

    The studies on happiness you cite DO indicate a certain lack of correlation between happiness and wealth, but that only kicks in after a certain amount of wealth is attained: that is, increased wealth doesn’t increase happiness, except when the increased wealth is at the lowest end of the spectrum.

    To explain further, while your points about wealth over happiness are fine, they don’t really apply here: Smith’s character is not searching for wealth as an abstraction with the assumption that it would make him happy, he’s searching for stability, the ability to feed, clothe, educate and shelter his son, clear goals that a decent level of employment would provide him. True, the true story after this movie involves the man searching for a great deal of wealth, but at the same time the movie’s aims are rather obvious. It is not an unreasonable assumption Smith’s character makes: that a steady job would allow him to provide for his son and be a role model that his son can be proud of. Those are the consistent themes of this movie, and neither of them indicates that “the pursuit of happyness” is an unreasonable title.

  • Enlightened Student

    How about we make people responsible for their own happiness and not the government. Who cares if people are unhappy. That’s their problem not yours.