THE THING that made this country great was that everyone believed money could buy happiness. But because of inflation, the price of happiness has doubled in the last 10 years, and the people who sell it have no idea what it will eventually cost.

An analyst for the American Dream Co. told me, "For 25 years people have consumed happiness without a thought for tomorrow. They never realized that there is just so much happiness in the world, and at the rate they were using it, we would eventually run out."

I agreed. "Happiness was so cheap we all took it for granted. But we were urged to buy happiness today and pay for it tomorrow. We can't be blamed for wasting it."

"It's not a question of blaming anyone. But we have to wake up to reality, and that is, if you want to have happiness now, you're going to have to pay for it through the nose. The day of the 5-cent pack of bubble gum is gone."

I said, "I think the problem is that Americans still believe the happiness shortage has been contrived so that the people who sell it can make windfall profits. Is it real or isn't it?"

"It's true that the happiness industry may be taking advantage of the situation, but there are many other factors at work which are driving up the price. Twenty-five years ago it took very little to make people happy. A home, a car and a TV was enough to make most people content.

"But then we were told it wasn't enough. If we really wanted to be happy, we had to have a second car and a second home. We couldn't find happiness unless we used deodorants and bought new clothes and gave our children guitar lessons and stereo sets and bought them their own car. We were warned that unless we had been to Disneyland we weren't truly happy.

"Then we were told that happiness really meant enjoying our leisure time. This meant ski trips, tickets to ball games, and Europe, gold and tennis equipment, overnight camping trips and drinking Coca-Cola. It also meant eating out and paying baby sitters, and not leaving home without an American Express Card.

"All the banks had instant happiness plans where you could borrow money for practically anything you wanted, and pay it back on the installment plan.

"But no matter what we bought, we were told we didn't have true happiness unless we consumed more. Just when we thought we had all the happiness that money could buy, a new product came out on the market which, made our old happiness obsolete. If we didn't rush out and buy it, we were warned we would be very unhappy. It stands to reason that the price of buying happiness would go through the roof."

"What you say has merit," I said. "But if money can't buy happiness, what's left?"

"First, we're going to have to conserve the happiness we have now. People will have to face up to the fact that despite the TV commercials, they can't be happy all the time.

"Then, we're going to have to find new resources for happiness, which are cheaper and will last longer. We wll have to go back to a simpler way of life when happiness was a warm puppy who ate leftover scraps, instead of Alpo dog food. And finally, if this doesn't work, we're going to have to put a tax on happiness until it hurts."

"If you do that you'll really make people unhappy," I said.

"It's bitter medicine, but it's the only way the price of happiness will ever come down."