Posted by: Harold Knight | 07/05/2011

The pursuit of, groveling before, obsession with Happiness

Rembrandt, Late Self Portrait

Rembrandt, Late Self Portrait

Ah! Happiness!

In 1776 Thomas Paine published his call for American independence from Britain, Common Sense. John Adams reportedly said the Revolution would not have happened but for Common Sense.  Paine wrote books, each more radical than the one before, until his 1791 “The Rights of Man” earned him the distinction of being convicted in absentia by the British for seditious libel. Few Americans, however, would take offence at his description of “natural rights” as

. . .  those which appertain to man in right of his existence. Of this kind are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and also all those rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and happiness, which are not injurious to the natural rights of others (1).

Psychologist Ed Diener who, according to Steve Salerno is known to his colleagues as Dr. Happiness because of his work in “feel-good” psychology, recently told the American Psychological Association joy may be overrated. Salerno says Deiner admitted that

. . .  joy has a downside. Granted, an upbeat outlook is generally (albeit mildly) correlated with longevity, social acceptance and above-average success . . . Diener’s work showed that any link between attitude and achievement is hardly a straight-line progression (2).

His first example I can attest to with years of anecdotal evidence. I am not surprised that “. . .  college students who score super-high on the happiness scale seldom have the GPAs to match.” And it doesn’t surprise me that evidence shows that

 . . . the very perkiest adults tend to be out-earned by their more even-keel colleagues. Indeed, a company filled with nothing but smiling faces risks losing market share to a competitor staffed with more aggressive, curmudgeonly types (3).

The philosopher William James in his magisterial writing on religious experience says

If we were to ask the question: “what is human life’s chief concern?” one of the answers we would receive would be: “It is happiness.” How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do. . . (4).

The purpose of religion is to teach us how to gain, keep, and recover happiness?

Religion is not the only area of our lives in which we seek to gain, keep, and recover happiness. As the work and writing of Dr. Happiness aptly illustrate, the academic disciplines of psychology, sociology, and economics are saturated with the study of “happiness.” Indeed, happiness

. . . has emerged in recent years as a major preoccupation of our time, at once the goal of individual lives and the “sole horizon,” as the critic Pascal Bruckner has observed, of “our modem democracies” (5).

Americans’ obsession with happiness is in our collective DNA. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Jefferson was not alone in his emphasis on happiness. Thomas Paine, in Common Sense, repeatedly speaks of happiness as the goal of society, the clearest statement being , “Whatever the form or constitution of government may be, it ought to have no other object than the general happiness(6). This is not a metaphorical term meaning well-being or peace or safety or any other object of government. His emphasis on happiness throughout makes it clear that his idea and Jefferson’s are both that protecting the right to happiness is at least one aim of government.

Paine and Jefferson spoke for their generation of Americans. The first rallied the vast majority of colonists to fight for independence and the second wrote the document signed in Congress “unanimously” that declared that independence.

The belief in happiness as a goal not only of governments but of individuals did not, of course, spring full-grown from the heads of those two men.  In his article quoted above, Darrin McMahon presents an overview of the history of the transcendence of the “pursuit of happiness” as it evolved from Plato into the American DNA. He points out that pursuing happiness was an idea common to the Enlightenment, and became a driving force in the French Revolution. He quotes Article One of the French Constitution of June 24, 1793, which says, “The goal of society is common happiness.

McMahon says the belief in happiness was the driving force, the faith, of the heirs of the American Founding Fathers,

. . .  those capitalist descendants who toiled in the hope of making a better life[.] Arguably that faith was impoverished. No longer did it reflexively link the highest human good to virtue, to truth, to God, or to any other objective end. Individual pleasure, subjective good feeling was increasingly the measure of all things (6).

And, according to McMahon, the faith in happiness as the highest good has transformed our society so that

A notion born in ancient Greece, cultivated and shaped by a long Judeo-Christian tradition, only to blossom fully in the age of the Enlightenment as the definitive human end— happiness is today triumphant in the West. . . and as globalization raises expectations of a better life. . .  men and women throughout the world are searching restlessly for better feelings and more satisfaction, more of the time. What else is left, we might ask? . . .  We shall be happy. We shall have good feelings. We shall feel good (7).

I’ve begun to think about and read others’ thoughts about the process of growing old(er). Awhile back I read a study designed to find out how one achieves “peace” in old age. The well-being of the participants was

measured along six domains on a continuum between the happy-well and the sad-sick. . . first, objective physical health. . . second, subjective physical health; third, length of active life [without disability] . . . [f]ourth, objective mental health. . .  competence in . . . work, relationships, play. . . [f]ifth . . . subjective life satisfaction. . .  subjective satisfaction in marriage, job, children, and friendship. . . [s]ixth. . . social supports: objective evidence of friends and [family] (8).

Six measures of well-being. If you’ve got ‘em, you’re happy, and if you don’t, you’re sad—and sick!

I wish to file a minority opinion. The only time in my life I would have told you unequivocally that I was happy was 1975-1978 when I was in graduate school, newly divorced, living alone, drunk, and totally irresponsible. I thought I was happy. I wasn’t, of course. I’m not sure I’ve ever been happy (read all the sidebars here, and you’ll understand why). The question, “Are you happy?” is one I never think about.

Is it possible to have the American happiness gene and overcome it? A poem by Jane Hirshfield:

Late Self-Portrait by Rembrandt   

The dog, dead for years, keeps coming back in the dream.
We look at each other there with the old joy.
It was always her gift to bring me into the present—

Which sleeps, changes, awakens, dresses, leaves.

 Happiness and unhappiness
differ as a bucket hammered from gold differs from one of pressed tin,
this painting proposes.

Each carries the same water, it says.

(1) Paine, Thomas. The Rights of Man. The Essential Documents of American History, compiled by Norman P. Desmarais and James H. McGovern, Providence College, 2009.
(2) Salerno, Steve. “Ignorance of Bliss.” Skeptic 16.1 (2010): 52-59.
(3) Salerno op. cit.
(4) James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982. Quoted in Larrimore, Mark. “Religion and the Promise of Happiness.” Social Research 77.2 (2010): 569-594.
(5) McMahon, Darrin M. “What Does the Ideal of Happiness Mean?” Social Research 77.2 (2010): 469-490. Quoting: Bruckner, Pascal. L’Euphorie perpétuelle: essai sur le devoir de bonheur. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, 2000.
(6)  Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. The Essential Documents of American History, compiled by Norman P. Desmarais and James H. McGovern, Providence College, 2009. (6) McMahon op. cit.
(7) McMahon loc. cit.
(8) Andrews, Edward M. “Finding Peace in Successful Aging.” New Theology Review 23.4 (2010): 13-20.


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