A man and his girlfriend are eating at a restaurant one day. The two are enjoying a wonderful moment and it’s at this exact point that the man gets down on one knee, pulls a box from his pocket and takes a ring out, asking his beloved to spend the rest of her life with him. She’s happy, a smile stretched from ear to ear as she says “yes” and he places the ring on her finger. She looks down and there’s a moment of hesitation, almost disappointment. She knew this day would come but the ring that she had wanted isn’t the one that he bought. The one that he bought was significantly less expensive than the perfect one that she had picked out and for a moment, this troubles her. She thinks to herself how happy she is but this one-minute detail can’t leave her mind. This mentality has run uncontrolled throughout America for many years, dating back to a significant period of American history: the 1920’s. America has always been a society that prides itself in property and obtaining the best material assets that it can, but the 1920’s really catalyzed the viewpoint that modern American society has regarding material wealth and its importance. Yet does this really define happiness? My belief is that it doesn’t represent true happiness and that The Great Gatsby reflects on what really makes us happy: significant human interaction.
The 1920s were a time of wealth and great wealth, and many people were able to become rich beyond their comprehension when the system of credit was established, allowing them to buy and rent essentially whatever their hearts desired when they desired it. Yet, this came at a great cost economically for many years after and several authors and artists have critiqued the very nature of this materialistic obsession that defined the period. Such an example is that of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a pivotal American novel that explored what happiness really is and how it was affected by wealth at the time. This era was formative in that it came to define how Americans view material gains and how closely as a society we correlate material possessions to happiness (Rimer, New York Times.) As such, the mentality of the 1920s is an intriguing period, which introduces questions relating to the existence of happiness and how we as Americans have come to define it.
The relationship between consumerism and happiness has long been a subject of discussion and why we as consumers purchase the things that we do comprises a huge portion of this discussion. As Annie Leonard states in her video “The Story of Stuff,” “Our primary identity has become that of being consumers” (YouTube, “The Story of Stuff,” Annie Leonard). Consumerism has become a huge, formative part of the identity that we have as a nation and it can be largely attributed to the obsession with wealth that started in the 1920s. The story of The Great Gatsby reflects on why we attempt to purchase and consume more and how these efforts don’t really feel that longing that we have to be happy. Many of the characters in The Great Gatsby are obsessed with the lifestyle that they live and the luxuries of wealth, but they don’t seek to openly find true happiness and many of their relationships are lacking in real attachment (Mizener, 18). The titular character of Jay Gatsby craves the love of Daisy Buchanan and his pursuits are defined by how she views him and the things that he possesses. The narrator Nick Carraway reflects on this by stating “He hadn’t once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes” (Fitzgerald, 91).
The truest pursuit of happiness for Jay Gatsby was that of finding and connecting with those around him, something that he couldn’t achieve with the giant parties that he threw. Sean Alfano of CBS News discusses similar themes and ideas of happiness in his article “The Pursuit of Happiness.” In this, he states that psychologists argue that money only helps buy happiness if the person is already impoverished but after a certain threshold, it doesn’t make “much of a difference” (Alfano, CBS News). This is reaffirmed by the Asap SCIENCE study “Can Money Buy Happiness?” which claims that any sort of income beyond $75,000 a year does not have an effect on overall happiness (YouTube, “Can Money Buy Happiness?” Asap SCIENCE). Despite being one of the wealthiest nations in the world, he cites a study by psychologist Ed Diener which states that America is ranked 15th in the world behind Puerto Rico and Canada in terms of overall happiness (Alfano, CBS News). As such, it is worth noting that substantial wealth may not be what causes happiness for most. Daisy and Tom Buchanan are examples of this: despite having significant wealth, they feel neither real hope nor regret because their lives are based solely on material pursuits (InterestingArticles.com, “Rise and Fall of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby). According to an article by Nicholas Bakalar of the New York Times titled “Happiness May Come With Age, Study Says,” there is significant evidence that proves that people are consistently happier the older they get and this article cites the potential for worries regarding wealth or social status to begin to decline as individuals grow older (Bakalar, New York Times).
It’s quite possible that happiness itself is defined by the experiences that we have as humans and the connections that we make, as opposed to material wealth and that the pursuit and obsession of material wealth can make us substantially less happy. Soulpancake, a popular YouTube channel that discusses psychological occurrences, states that the level of happiness that one has can be positively affected by expressions of gratitude and selflessness. In the study that they conducted, the participants saw an overall increase of between 4 and 19 percent in terms of their own happiness after they personally called and spoke with someone, showing how grateful they were (YouTube, “Can Money Buy Happiness?” Soulpancake). Jenny Santi of Time Magazine asserts the claim that time can be more important than money, stating that “the gift of time is often more valuable to the receiver and more satisfying for the giver than the gift of money” (Santi, Time Magazine). Furthermore, Dan Gilbert, a prominent psychologist specializing in the field of human interaction, asserts in his TED Talk titled “The Surprising Science of Happiness” that humans often attempt to find a real source of happiness when one doesn’t exist within ourselves, claiming that we “synthesize” happiness (Gilbert, “The Surprising Science of Happiness,” TED).
This mentality is what catalyzed the growth of consumerism in America. As Emma Seppala discusses, companies have capitalized on the insecurities that many Americans have and the overall lack of real happiness by leading consumers to believe that money or possessions will make us significantly happier in the long run (Seppala, Perf. Associated Newspapers). What truly defines our happiness though, is human interaction and reaching out to one another. I believe that our truest type of happiness cannot be bought or gained through wealth, but rather by connecting with others and choosing to pursue the experiences and moments that revitalize us and remind us of our humanity. I interviewed my grandfather about this. He told me of his father and how he had tried to get rich in the 1920s but how ultimately, it didn’t make him happy. He said, “My dad reminds me a lot of men today. He wanted money, nice cars, nice clothes and he worked a lot to try and have that. But it just made him older faster.” The pursuit of money can rob people of their happiness often times and can leave people looking back on years that they wasted, attempting to seize the green light, “the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us” (Fitzgerald, 180).
- Alfano, Sean. “The Pursuit Of Happiness.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, 17 Feb. 2008. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.
- Asap SCIENCE. Season 2012 Episode 30 S2012E30 “Can Money Buy Happiness?” OVGuide. N.p., 20 Dec. 2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.
- Bakalar, Nicholas. “Happiness May Come With Age, Study Says.” New York Times. 31 May 2010. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1995. Print. pp. 91-180.
- Gilbert, Dan. “The Surprising Science of Happiness.”Dan Gilbert: The Surprising Science of Happiness | TED Talk | TED.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.
- Mizener, Arthur. “The Far Side of Paradise: A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald”. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 1951. pp. 17-26.. 21 Feb. 2017.
- Santi, Jenny. “The Secret to Happiness Is Helping Others.”Time. Time, 14 Oct. 2015. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
- Seppala, Emma “The Happiness Track on What Brings Us Happiness.” Perf. Associated Newspapers Ltd, n.d. Wed. 11 Feb. 2017.
- Soulpancake. “An Experiment in Gratitude | The Science of Happiness.” Youtube. YouTube, 11 July 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.
- “Rise and Fall of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby.” InterestingArticles.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.
- Rimer, Sara. “Gatsby’s Green Light Beckons a New Set of Strivers. “Gatsby’s Green Light Beckons a New Set of Strivers. New York Times. N.p., 17 Feb. 2008. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.