It’s hard to think of a more free-spirited college than the one I attend. For crying out loud, I study TV writing. I take classes about cartoons and puppets. Everyone spends their free time doing creative stuff, and there’s no shortage of encouragement to pursue one’s passions and express who you truly are. Nobody tells anyone to do anything. But there’s a paradox.
I’ve never met a less happy group of people.
Okay, maybe not “never.” But everyone is constantly overwhelmed by anxiety and pessimism and a general dissatisfaction with their daily lives. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, but a fantastic new book has been shedding some light on precisely why this may be.
A Time To Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream by Yuval Levin is a book that I can’t recommend enough. I’m not that far into it, but it’s the most succinct distillation of the problems my generation faces that I’ve ever encountered. It explains a lot about the happiness epidemic that I see on a daily basis.
Every great generation of thinkers, from the ancient Greeks to America’s Founding Fathers, have realized that humans are imperfect. Our instincts often lead us to act immorally, and those instincts need to be controlled. So we’ve always built institutions—schools, clubs, sports teams, churches, companies, etc.—that work to contain human instincts. These institutions shaped young people and taught us the best ways to live. When somebody graduated from a good college, you knew that they were coming out smarter and with an understanding of the way the world works. When somebody joined the military, you knew they were coming out with an unbelievable sense of discipline.
But in many cases, that practice is gradually vanishing. I wouldn’t say that my school “shapes” anyone. It tells us to “be ourselves,” and that any feeling we have in our hearts can’t possibly be wrong. It teaches us that the highest authority we have to obey is our own feelings, and that anything that feels unpleasant has to be wrong. And you’d think that would make everyone happier, but the inverse is true. By refusing to give any kind of meaningful moral guidance, we’re producing a generation of wandering souls.
The book is about the institutions that shape our lives, and how we’re moving away from them at an alarming rate. From congress to Hollywood to everything in between, people are refusing to be shaped by institutions and instead using these institutions to further whatever beliefs they came in with. As Levin so eloquently puts it, we’re “standing on top of institutions and shouting” rather than going inside and being shaped by them.
As I start my career, it makes me think about how I can help build new institutions that will lead to more social cohesion and happiness for everyone. It’s hard to put toothpaste back into a tube, but we can build new organizations that give meaning to the next generation. Nobody has all the answers, but this book comes as close as anyone. I highly recommend it.