On the outside, looking out

Two things are going on here related to American unhappiness: The first is that as our economy becomes less physical and more intellectual, success in life is less like war and more like chess, and extraordinary success in life — i.e., being part of the founding of a successful new company — is a lot like being a grandmaster: It is an avenue that simply is not open to everyone. It requires talents that are not distributed with any sense of fairness and that are not earnable: Hard work is not enough. Peter Thiel is both a successful entrepreneur and a ranked chess master — and these facts are not merely coincidental.

You can blame Thiel a little bit for the second factor in American unhappiness: Facebook. Facebook and other social-media communities are a kind of ongoing high-school reunion, the real and unstated purpose of which is to dramatize the socioeconomic gulf between those who have made it in life and those who have not. We simply know more about how our more successful friends and neighbors live than our ancestors knew about John D. Rockefeller, about whom they thought seldom if at all. Our contemporary tycoons have reality shows (some of which blossom into presidencies, oddly enough), but social media is itself a kind of reality show for everybody else.

It is not that a modern bus driver can’t live as well as Ralph Kramden did — he lives much better. But Ralph Kramden had something that made his relative lack of financial success much more bearable: Alice.

Even in this age of plenty, when work has become for so many of us more pleasant and more interesting than it was a generation or two ago, most of us are not going to have the kind of jobs that high-school guidance counselors like to call “careers,” which is to say, jobs that are so important and meaningful to us that they form the anchor of our sense of self and our sense of self-worth. Most of us will just have jobs, things that we have to do in exchange for money, positions about which we do not necessarily have any strong feeling other than perhaps the fear of losing it.