Books to read: Happiness

If there’s one aspect of human life that’s natural and universal to the species, it’s the desire for happiness. Rich and poor share it, as do ancients and moderns, men and women, black and white. Right?

Nope. As with everything else worth talking about, happiness was invented by the Greeks. And as Darrin McMahon demonstrates in his fascinating history of happiness, the idea — really, ideal — of happiness, once invented, has rolled around the world causing all sorts of toil and trouble. It has evolved from a condition to a feeling, from the stuff of tragedy to the universal smile on the photo image. The feverish demand for happiness, McMahon speculates, may well trigger depression.

For the Greeks, happiness was something that happened to a very few — McMahon observes that the two English words are also related to happenstance, or luck. It would seem that the Greeks first articulated what was an ancient, widespread notion: that happiness was an objective condition — the possession of health, strength, beauty, material prosperity, children — and that the happy few had done nothing to earn this condition, but were simply blessed by the gods.

To consciously pursue happiness, in this view, came close to tempting the gods, and to boast of having obtained it invited disaster.

Many Greek stories, most famously that of Croesus, relentlessly make this point: except for a handful of god-like individuals, human life is suffering unto death, made more tragic by brief and intermittent episodes of happiness. “No one who lives is happy,” the once-great king Croesus concluded. To endure with strength was the best we could hope for.

This tragic outlook was first challenged Socrates, contrarian and gadfly, whose brood of disciples — Platonists, Stoics, Epicureans — shattered forever the old tragic sense of life. Socrates broke with this tradition by arguing that happiness was attainable through personal effort. More: in his view, happiness was the goal of all human activity, a proposition so revolutionary as to stand the old culture on its head.

The Athenians had obsessed about the fragility of good fortune and the inevitability of suffering. Socrates insisted that happiness had nothing to do with luck, any more than it depended on wealth or beauty: it was based on knowledge, on what we today would call science. Suffering, to Socrates, resulted from ignorance.

With his radical reorientation of happiness, Socrates anticipated both the American Declaration of Independence and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The doctrine he established has been internalized by most of us, and is still going strong. Today, most people believe happiness is the goal their lives. Most people take it for granted that their actions can secure it. Disputes arise only over the most effective method of doing so. Socrates’ answer was the life of reason — almost certainly wrong, but no less influential for all that.

In some ways Socrates remained true to the old tradition. Because of the rampant ignorance and selfishness of the multitude, he thought happiness was accessible only to a a handful of gifted individuals. Those happy few were, of course, people like himself: philosophers who could pry truth from convention. If democracy, as he once said, was pandering, then happiness was the reward of noble minds. Like all Athenians, Socrates also kept happiness firmly attached to the objective world. The life of reason meant avoiding painful mistakes, and had nothing to do with happy feelings.

The triumph of Christianity democratized and subjectivized happiness, but removed it to a perfect world beyond the grave. The “good news” of Christ’s resurrection was available to every man and woman of faith. Everyone could be saved; everyone could be happy. Calvinists argued, like Socrates, that the gate was narrow and only few were chosen, but the majority of Christian groups rejected Calvin’s predestinarian logic, which had little of good news about it.

Christianity also converted happiness into a feeling. St. Paul made love the greatest virtue, and the love of God, the sight of a loving God after salvation, could only be described in terms of ecstatic joy. Mystics and sectarians tried to anticipate the moment of salvation, experiencing moments of sublime happiness that gave the word “enthusiasm” wholly religious associations. But for most Christians human life was a vale of tears, and the bridge to happiness was death.

As McMahon explains, St. Augustine, who set the tone on the subject, denied the possibility of perfection in this world. The human race, Augustine held, was tainted by original sin. Human sinfulness made of the City of Man a place of violence and corruption. The rise and fall of empires obeyed a divine plan to humiliate wordly ambition. For Augustine no less than for the tragic-minded Greeks, earthly life was a trial to be endured. All hope of happiness lay in the transcendent City of God.

The history of happiness appears like a tale of ever increasing expectations. The typical Greek thought happiness god-given. For Socrates, it could be earned, but only by a few. For medieval thinkers, it was universally available, but only in heaven. The last step down this path was taken by French Enlightenment thinkers who proclaimed that everyone could and should be happy, right here on earth. The only barriers were ignorance and superstition. Remove these, and happiness flowed to the masses as a universal and natural condition.

Except for a return to feelings inspired by the Romantics, that is where we are today. Everyone, by right, expects to be happy, but nobody knows what that means or how to get there. If it’s a feeling, a whole pharmacopia of drugs becomes an obvious pathway to happiness. If it’s wealth, there seems to be a limit to how much happiness money can buy: McMahon cites statistics showing the richest to be happier than the poorest, but the curve flattens out beyond a middling income, and our growing prosperity has been matched by a higher incidence of clinical depression. Similar studies claim that marriage helps; children apparently don’t.

So what are we to make of happiness? McMahon has no time for our feel-good industry, which has spawned, among other monstrosities, the yellow happy face. But he’s a historian, not a moralist, and after presenting virtually every reference to happiness on the record, he very appropriately leaves us to draw our own conclusions. Let me end this post, then, with some of my own.

We Americans have the pursuit of happiness in our DNA. As McMahon (following in the footsteps of Jean Yarbrough) observes, this had nothing to do with happy faces: Jefferson and the Founding Fathers meant by that phrase the perfection of virtue. In a sense, the old Greeks were much closer to the truth than Socrates. Morality is a tragic condition. We must always amputate some piece of ourselves, of our private desires, if we are to play by the rules of the community, and the only kind of happiness worth having must be sheltered under those rules.

It is presumption to say that the goal of human life is happiness or pleasure — or any other single end. Human life isn’t like a military unit with a mission. Many ends are pursued: sex, love, family, money, work, power, God. Virtue is just a word for the harmonizing of those ends into a theme, a passably coherent story that one’s children can tell with pride.

Happiness, if it is to come, will arrive in the pursuit of those multiple ends that cohere in a person’s life. In marriage, for example — or, despite what the studies tell us, in children. In success at work. In sexual passion. Or, for the faithful, in the peace that passeth undestanding. Epicureans and utilitarians, who pursue happiness pure and simple, run aground on human nature. Constant pleasure nauseates, then bores. Wealth and power, once achieved, become givens. Self-seeking to healthy persons feels too narrow a pursuit.

We are rarely happier than when we transcend our smallish selves. We are creatures of kinship. We are social animals. We are the only symbolic species. We mix love of family, community, and higher ideals with the earth of self-interest — and in a balance between these demands happiness will sometimes be found.


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