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The Pursuit of American Happiness

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April 2007
The Pursuit of American Happiness

ABCDs face a lot of pressure to be happy. It keeps me up at night, this conundrum of satisfaction and fulfillment. As the neighbors' dogs bark and the MARTA buses lumber by, I toss to one side and then the next trying to figure out what the next step is. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of my life after college—a life previously consumed by a flurry of preparations -- is the realization that once you've prepared, you've got nothing to face but the daily grind.

Indian Americans are singularly forward thinking; they save, they take SAT prep classes, they intern, they take expansive college campus tours. But what happens to our generation after we arrive at the future? If my parents' life pursuit has been to work, save, and sacrifice for the betterment of the next generation, all of this in order to get a leg upon or to compete with generations of established Americans, then what is my life pursuit but to enjoy the fruit of their labor?

This is hard. It's a clich� to say that Americans don't know how to enjoy life as much as the rest of the world, but it's true. Americans may be the most comfortable people on the planet, but enjoyment is a far simpler and thereby more elusive process for a culture that has banked everything in extreme personal convenience. Even with cell phones, text messaging, and online dinner reservations, it is virtually impossible for me to experience spontaneous fun and leisure these days. We have instead to shop for groceries, buy extra toilet paper, secure more library books for the kids—all of which take us out of the house for hours and involve a stiff vigilance due to the increasing number of in town held-at-gun-point parking-lot robberies. Aside from now having to remember not to trust anybody in order to protect myself when I am rushing around with my stroller and diaper bag, hoarding supplies for another three days' existence, I also wonder, like other people of my generation, if this is all there really is.

Maybe the problem is that I just can't really see what "this" is. Maybe by professionalizing parenting and domesticity, by fixating on finding professional fulfillment, I and others like myself are simply trying to extend that familiar phase of preparations, uncomfortable as we may be, with the knowledge of the sheer materiality of our American lives. The good life means monthly payments, which means daily upkeep, which means no time for anyone or anything but work.

Before I had my first child, in the interim years between graduate school, my first jobs, and becoming a parent, my husband and I could go days, as young and connected as we were, without receiving a single social phone call. Slowly, through play dates and the desperation of young parents who look forward to leaving the house, the phone has begun to ring again. "Kids are ambassadors," my husband says. But ambassadors to what? Eighteen years of planned social activities for the enrichment of children and to pass the time? What happens after that? Will I slowly throw myself into a second or third career as I reach my generativity v. self-absorbtion stage? Will I, like my parents, consider leaving the country for a while? I wonder whether I might be better off living in India, where more people are around, where one's home is not sterilely silent, except for the noise of abandoned and fenced in pets, the false society of television's inanities, direct, on demand, or not.

The pursuit of happiness is America's greatest invention. As we enter different life stages trying to chase this culturally accorded right, it keeps us occupied and looking forward, planning, purchasing, and sometimes saving and investing: we keep the wheels turning. For ABCDs who are now adults, the pursuit, however, means overwhelming restlessness. It means giving up the law firm to try teaching school, leaving teaching to go to medical school, leaving the practice to stay home with the kids, giving up on the PhD to try another degree, staying home to plan a revolution that you hope, to yourself, that others will join. I don't know a single ABCD over the age of twenty-five who's completely satisfied with his or her life decisions. A single person who would exclaim, "I got it right!" If I know people who are fortunate enough to have taken themselves towards better or more fruitful situations, I still don't see a great deal of peace. And yet—oh how much more peaceful and well-adjusted seemed our parents, who, I suspect, were not so much motivated by visions of perfect professional and personal fulfillment!

Ironically, though I am grounded in a culture with religious and spiritual practices that encourage the attainment of enlightenment and inner quiet—I am disquieted by the loudness of my mind.


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