American Happiness and the Jester Archetype Blog Series Blog One

Monday, June 5, 2023

By Carol S. Pearson


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….

--The U.S. Declaration of Independence


Blog One: Introduction: Revealing Our Nation’s Underestimated Strength

Americans these days seem anything but happy, yet most of us believe we should be. Indeed, many spend their time on social media pretending they are living their ideal life. In an article in the July/August 2021 issue of The Atlantic entitled “How America Fractured Into Four Parts,” George Packer identified four American stories that dominate our cultural narrative, each of which involves a different way groups seek happiness, and in the process either offer or deny it to others. [1] Packer's attempt to find what could unify us revealed to me the archetype that Americans may not see in themselves, but others do.

Packer argues that just as fish cannot recognize water, Americans do not see ourselves as clearly as people in other countries can. His research shows that citizens of other nations identify Americans with casual dress, loose body language, informality (often inappropriate), easy familiarity with others they just met, jeans, and sneakers—all of which can appear naïve and even ridiculous in the eyes of people from more formal cultures. He suggests that we can come back together through a shared value of equality.

In my view, however, equality is an abstraction, and abstractions do not compel attention. Archetypal stories do. The Jester, I believe, is the archetype that most matches the distinguishing behaviors Packer describes, since in many ways, Americans show up as children, as playmates, and as they get older, as buddies hanging out together where status takes a back seat to enjoying one another—hence actual or pretend equality. And their manners are informal, as when they are engaged in fun or relaxing leisure activities. Even in professional settings, more and more Americans wear comfortable, relaxed clothing, at the very least on casual Fridays, one or two steps up from what would be worn for leisure. It used to be that news anchors were very formal; but now, even on serious news shows, as on NPR, anchors greet reporters with "Hey, Sarah," and the reporter replies, "Hey, Jonathan."


Americans, in our Jester fun-loving sides, have always loved to get together in community events, from country fairs, village greens, and dance halls to sports events. The promised right of “the pursuit of happiness” as well as much of American behavior reflect the virtues of the Jester archetype. These American qualities of life enjoyment, ease, and pleasure, even today, have been quietly transforming cultures throughout the world, for good or ill. How? By what we most reliably offer individuals in their countries: jeans, sneakers and running shoes, and comfortable clothing of all kinds; iPhones, Hollywood movies, MTV and other musical formats; the ease with which we laugh, and our quick adoption of very familiar speech before we know others well.

Our tradition of individualism balances this community spirit, since it also offers greater room for us to express our authenticity by just being ourselves than those who live in more role-based cultures can do. The Jester also helps us experience equality in the form of folks vacationing together, sharing a day at the beach, enjoying a party, going to the movies, escaping into a good book or a solo walk, or retiring and doing just what you want to do for as long as you can. When the Jester pairs with the Warrior, the fun also can involve competition – e.g., many games, sports, and work teams. You enter the Jester's archetypal field anytime you do what you love doing.

If you stop to pay attention, it is difficult to miss how much Americans value happiness as a life choice. American parents, when asked what they want for their children when they grow up, typically say they just want them to be happy. Our country has a huge and profitable self-help industry specializing in ways to help us be successful and happy, as well as a research industry focused on what fosters individual fulfillment. Many countries have a greeting of "Good day," but in America, many say, "Have a great day!" which can be taken as a demand as much as a kindly wish. Moreover, in America, happiness often is associated with the freedom to live the way we want. However, we do not all experience the same access to what we want, and we do not tell the same versions of our Jester happiness stories.

So, how come Americans are so unhappy? Between the Covid pandemic, social media, and the culture war, Americans often end up isolated and lonely, with more and more of them becoming violent. An active social life (which traditionally has been the responsibility of women) has been found to avert violence, as happened when our founding mothers threw upscale parties where civil behavior was expected to get legislators who had been solving disagreements with duels and brawls to treat each other in civilized, convivial ways. Congress could use more of that social interaction now.


Medieval court jesters were tasked with speaking truth to monarchs to tame their worst natures, bonding the nation's leaders through telling jokes, promoting music and dance, and in every way lightening things up so that people could work together for the common good.  Americans appreciate presidents who balance a sense of Ruler responsibility with Jester humor.  In recent times, Presidents Reagan and Biden have displayed that quality, one that results in their ability to get bipartisan bills passed. In your personal or work life, you may have been in a room where tempers are rising, but when someone says something funny, everyone calms right down. Even in divisive religious life, feuding over which group of us God loves best is calmed when people lighten up, recognizing that the same Creator made us all.

Right now the Jester is expressed in American political life with each side satirizing the other in a culture war of battling insults. This form of ridicule serves to bond partisans and their followers with one another, but not with Americans as a whole. I’ve come to recognize that our citizens tend to connect happiness with freedom, and consequently with the American sacred (but unfulfilled) Seeker story that is our national mythology. This story features explorers, immigrants, pioneers, entrepreneurs, and all who want to leave what constrains them and seek greater freedom, a theme discussed in my first America blog, “What Story is America Living: An Archetypal Analysis.” 

To move ahead together as a nation, we need to understand that beneath our prevailing political antipathy is a hidden underground spring from which we can all drink to support American unity and renewal.

The next blog in this series, coming soon, reveals the ways conservatives and liberals differently imagine happiness being achieved through greater freedom. It also explores how this divide is intensified as patriarchal norms are being challenged and rethought, with some cheering change along and others resisting it.







[1] Using his terms, Free America assumes happiness results from gaining wealth; Real America, from retaining the Anglo-Saxon heritage; Smart America, from education and skill development; and Just America, from realizing the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.”

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