Reasons For Hope And Happiness On The 4th Of July

By Frank F Islam & Ed Crego, July 2, 2024 (Image credits: Tom de Boor, Adobe, Dreamstime)

I want to be happy

But I won’t be happy

Till I make you happy too.

Life’s really worth living

When we are mirth giving

Why can’t I give some to you

When skies are gray and you say you are blue

I’ll send the sun smiling through

Those are lyrics from “I Want to be Happy,” a song written for the musical No, No, Nanette in 1925.

In the first half century after that, from 1925 until 1975, versions of the song were recorded by many well-known performers, including Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, and Bing Crosby. In the nearly second half century from 1975 until 2024, there have been virtually no recordings of “I Want to be Happy.”

This is sad — especially so today — because during these trying times we need more reasons for hope and happiness. Music is one of those things that can give us both. So, too, can many other things.

One of those is the nation in which we live. The United States of America was founded on hope and a commitment to happiness on July 4, 1776, when the Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence severing the colonies’ ties with Great Britain.

The increasing need to focus on hope and happiness during these stressful times has been highlighted in a number of recent books, including Frank Bruni’s The Age of Grievance; Jim VanderHei’s Just the Good Stuff; Nicholas Kristof’s memoir, Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Journey; and Anne LaMott’s Somehow: Thoughts on LoveEach of these authors come at the need for hope and happiness from different angles, but all share valuable perspectives.

Frank Bruni has been a columnist for the New York Times for more than twenty-five years, and has been a professor at Duke University since 2021. In a April 20 Times essay adapted from his book, Bruni writes:

We live in an era defined and overwhelmed by grievance — by too many Americans’ obsession with how they’ve been wronged and their insistence on wallowing in ire. This anger reflects a pessimism that previous generations didn’t feel. The ascent of identity politics and the influence of social media, it turned out, were better at inflaming us than uniting us. They promote a self-obsession at odds with community, civility, comity, and compromise. It’s a problem of humility.

Bruni provides a few examples of leaders who practiced and preached being humble and concludes his essay with the following thoughts:

While grievance blows our concerns out of proportion, humility puts them in perspective. While grievance reduces the people with whom we disagree to caricature, humility acknowledges that they’re every bit as complex as we are — with as much of a stake in creating a more perfect union.

Nicholas Kristof is an American journalist and opinion columnist for the New York Times who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his writing. He opens a New York Times essay, adapted from his memoir, with the following paragraph:

More than three-quarters of Americans say the United States is headed in the wrong direction. This year, for the first time, America dropped out of the top 20 happiest countries in this year’s World Happiness Report. Some couples are choosing not to have children because of climate threats. And this despair permeates not just the United States, but much of the world.

He ends the next paragraph with this statement, “Instead of a City on a Hill, we feel like a nation in despair — maybe even a planet in despair.” And goes on to state:

Yet that’s not how I feel at all.

What I’ve learned from four decades of covering misery is hope — both the reasons for hope and the need for hope. I emerge from years on the front lines awed by material and moral progress, for we have the good fortune to be part of what is probably the greatest improvement in life expectancy, nutrition, and health that has ever unfolded in one lifetime.

Later in his article, Kristof adds:

The danger is that together all of us in society collectively reinforce a melancholy that leaves us worse off. Despair doesn’t solve problems; it creates them. It is numbing and counterproductive, making it more difficult to rouse ourselves to tackle the challenges around us.

The truth is that if you had to pick a time to be alive in the past few hundred thousand years of human history, it would probably be now.

Jim VanderHei is a journalist and co-founder of the media publications Axios and Politico. His book, Just the Good Stuff: A No-BS Guide to Secrets to Success (No Matter What Life Throws at You). although not a memoir, draws heavily upon his personal life for its insights.

VanderHei’s article for The Atlantic, adapted from his book, begins as follows:

My high-school guidance counselor had good reason to tell my deflated parents that there was no way I was college-bound: I graduated in the bottom third of my 100-person class at Lourdes Academy in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I had to attend the Menasha extension of the University of Wisconsin, a two-year school, just to smuggle myself into the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, a four-year school in my hometown. A year into that, I was staring at a 1.491 GPA and making the guidance counselor’s case daily, unambiguously, emphatically. I was one more wasted — literally and figuratively — semester away from getting the boot.

Then, I stumbled into a pair of passions: journalism and politics.

VanderHei’s pursuit of those passions led him to become an entrepreneur, founding two successful media publications. His success was not accomplished in a straight-line fashion, however. As he explains near the end of his piece for the Atlantic:

My own life is littered with mistakes. But I learned something from every dumb move and used it to try to get the big things right. Five decades in, that is what matters most to me: cutting myself slack on my daily sins or stumbles so I can focus on the good stuff.

Anne LaMott has written twenty books, including seven novels. She is best known for her best-selling non-fiction books, which draw heavily on observations and what she has learned from her personal life.

In the “Overture” to LaMott’s most recent book, Somehow: Thoughts on Love she declares:

One thing is certain. Love is our holy hope. Love springs from new life. Love springs from death. Love acts like Gandhi and our pets and Jesus and Mr. Bean and Mr. Rogers and Bette Midler… Love is the warmth we feel in the presence of a favorite aunt, the kindness of a waitress, and the warmth of a hand that pulls us back to our feet when the loss of love has almost destroyed us.

Somehow was launched the day before LaMott’s seventieth birthday. In her column for the Washington Post published after the book came out, Lamott writes:

After all the losses, disappointments, and deaths that every older person has experienced, we usually discover how life miraculously goes on, reshapes itself toward homeostasis and more grace than we could have imagined. We learn to look beyond our dire imaginings and trust that this miracle might just happen again. I once heard someone say that hope is faith with a track record.

There is much to be learned from Bruni, Kristoff, VandeHei, LaMott, and many others on how to be more hopeful and happier. That’s the case if we are lifelong learners and not trapped in a mental morass.

In terms of political leanings, it appears that, in general, those trapped on the less happy side of the aisle are liberals as opposed to conservatives.

Thomas Edsall assesses this condition in his May 8 New York Times column titled “The Happiness Gap Between Left and Right Isn’t Closing,” which opens as follows:

Why is it that a substantial body of social science research finds that conservatives are happier than liberals?

A partial answer: Those on the right are less likely to be angered or upset by social and economic inequities, believing that the system rewards those who work hard, that hierarchies are part of the natural order of things, and that market outcomes are fundamentally fair.

Those on the left stand in opposition to each of these assessments of the social order, prompting frustration and discontent with the world around them.

The happiness gap has been with us for at least 50 years and most research seeking to explain it has focused on conservatives. More recently, however, psychologists and other social scientists have begun to dig deeper into the underpinnings of liberal discontent — not only unhappiness, but also depression and other measures of dissatisfaction.

One of the experts Edsall cites on “liberal discontent” in his column is Timothy A. Judge, Chairman of the Department of Management and Human Resources at Notre Dame. Judge shared both a positive and negative viewpoint. stating:

I do share the perspective that a focus on status, hierarchies, and institutions that reinforce privilege contributes to an external locus of control. And the reason is fairly straightforward. We can only change these things through collective, and often, policy initiatives — which tend to be complex, slow, often conflictual, and outside our individual control.

On the other hand, if I view “life’s chances” (Virginia Woolf’s term) to be mostly dependent on my own agency, this reflects an internal focus, which will often depend on enacting initiatives largely within my control.

Near the end of his column, Edsall quotes Judge, stating:

I would like to think that there is a version of modern progressivism that accepts many of the premises of the problem and causes of inequality but does so in a way that also celebrates the power of individualism, of consensus, and of common cause.

We think that there is this hopeful view and are happy to join with Judge in sharing his positive perspective because it has been, and continues to be, ours as well.

We first shared this perspective in detail in our book, Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again, published in 2013. In the Epilogue to Pivot Points, we wrote:

As we close this book, it becomes clear that working and moving forward on the pivot points is a long hard slog. It is a marathon and not a 100-yard dash.

It requires patience and persistence and the ability to come back again and again after defeats. In our opening chapter, we highlighted the fact that success at some of the more important pivot points in our history was far from instantaneous.

Without the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution would probably have never been ratified. Even with those Rights appended, it took three years to get the Constitution approved. The Homestead Act, which was finally signed by President Lincoln in 1862, was first passed by the House in 1852. The Sherman Antitrust Act was passed as law in 1892 but not really used or enforced until President Roosevelt did so in 1902. President Franklin Roosevelt was elected to office in 1932 but the Social Security Act was not passed into law until August of 1935 — about 2½ years into his presidency. And those were relatively short time frames for gestation.

Think about women getting the right to vote, civil rights, and equal educational opportunity. The hands of time moved very slowly on those pivot points. But the pivot persons for those issues stayed true to their course and cause. Sometimes they had to hand off the baton to the next generation, but they did not waver from their principles.

It should not be just about sticking to your guns (or butter, for that matter). One of the core principles for those committed to working collaboratively to forge solutions at the pivot points should be the willingness and ability to change one’s position when the evidence and facts do not support it. This seems to be increasingly more and more difficult to do in these confrontational and complicated times — especially in areas of “hardened beliefs.” Nonetheless, it can happen.

We think and say give them time, too — the pivot points and those pivot persons (citizens and leaders) who will continue to work those points until the necessary and desired outcome is achieved.

It may not be this year. It may not be the next. It may take till the end of this decade — and possibly even longer. Eventually it will be done, because time is on the side of those with the patience, persistence, and principles to work the pivot points to make America work again.

And when they are, we can all join together, regardless of our personal or political persuasions, and sing:

Happy days are here again
The skies above are clear again
So let’s sing a song of cheer again
Happy days are here again

Happy 4th of July!