The History of Happiness
A look at the meaning of happiness and appreciating the little things in life.
We Americans believe we have the right to be happy. The Declaration of Independence says so. (Actually, it says that “all men” have a right to “the pursuit of happiness,” but let that pass for now.) In America today, we seem to equate the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of success. As I write this, The Secret, a book about attracting abundance through positive thinking, has been on best-seller lists for more than three years. And there’s a sequel to it beating the same drum: that if we play our cards right, we’ll magically create perfect health, great relationships, jobs we love, and more money than we know how to spend. This sounds like an awful lot to demand of ourselves—and furthermore, it’s not my idea of happiness.
It’s also not what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he drafted the Declaration. He saw the pursuit of happiness through the lens of certain ancient Greek philosophers: as something basic to human nature, essential for living a good and virtuous life. He may have borrowed the phrase from the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, who wrote that in order to seek “true and solid happiness,” we need to learn to distinguish real happiness from the imaginary kind. Before we gallop off after something we want, in other words, we need to think long and hard about whether it will actually make us happy. Getting everything you want in life will not necessarily do that—as you already know if you came of age during the second wave of the feminist movement, when women were supposed to try to “have it all.” But slogging through the messy struggle of a life can yield moments of pure happiness, and those moments, I believe, add immeasurably to the world.
I remember, nearly 20 years ago, standing in front of the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur, high above Paris. It was one of those raw, rainy mornings that drive the cold right into your bones. I’m not a Catholic or even a Christian. Nevertheless, I had a Moment. As I started down the 300 steps to the street, I suddenly felt that everything about me—my ineptly dyed auburn hair, my fraying wool-twill coat, my cold feet in their ugly shoes—was perfect. My unsuitable career was perfect. My furtive, irrational loves were perfect. I was exactly who I needed to be, and this filled me with a quiet, complete happiness that had nothing to do with what I had or had not achieved in life. The moment passed as quietly as it came, but I kept it—stuck it under my good old twill coat—as a sign that whatever track I was on was the right one. That, in fact, almost any track, followed in the right spirit, could be the right one. Happiness comes in small moments while you’re pursuing the big stuff. After a while, the small moments become the point. This is especially true in tough times. When the world seems to be falling apart, you still have your little touchstones of joy.
At age 20, I encountered a line in Dante’s Divine Comedy that I’ve never forgotten. Dante has been guided by his idol, the Roman poet Virgil, through Hell and Purgatory and is about to enter Paradise. Virgil leaves him at this point, saying, “Take henceforth your pleasure as your guide.” In Hell, Dante has seen human beings make every kind of misery for themselves without knowing how to escape. In Purgatory, he has watched people atone for their destructive behaviors. Over the course of his journey, he has acquired the wisdom to know where true happiness lies, and now his heart will unerringly guide him there.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not there yet. Then again, I’m not expecting perfect happiness. Like most of us, I’m happy in some ways, less happy in others. Although I’ve managed to clamber out of some pretty deep holes I’ve dug for myself, there are other roadblocks I haven’t gotten around—and may never get around. Furthermore, I’m mortal, so I don’t have forever to perfect my life. But I can still make pleasure my guide. Dante taught me that even a short life is a very long journey, and we all need provisions for the trip. We need good food, good stories, and people to share them with. We need a sense of proportion and a sense of the absurd. We need to have as good a time as we can, because, otherwise, what’s the point?
Marcia Menter is the author of a poetry collection, The Longing Machine (HappenStance), and The Office Sutras, a Buddhist take on office life.