In Pursuit of Unhappiness
By Darrin M. McMahon
New York Times, December 29, 2005
“HAPPY New Year!” We seldom think of those words as an order. But in some respects that is what they are.
Doesn’t every American want to be happy? And don’t most Americans yearn, deep down, to be happy all of the time? The right laid out in our nation’s Declaration of Independence - to pursue happiness to our hearts’ content - is nowhere on better display than in the rites of the holiday season. With glad tidings and good cheer, we seek to bring one year to its natural happy conclusion, while preparing to usher in a happy new year and many happy returns.
Like the cycle of the seasons, our emphasis on mirth may seem timeless, as though human beings have always made merry from beginning to end. But in fact this preoccupation with perpetual happiness is relatively recent. As Thomas Carlyle observed in 1843,“ ‘Happiness our being’s end and aim’ is at bottom, if we will count well, not yet two centuries old in the world.”
Carlyle’s arithmetic was essentially sound, for changes in both religious and secular culture since the 17th century made “happiness,” in the form of pleasure or good feeling, not only morally acceptable but commendable in and of itself. While many discounted religious notions that consigned life in this world to misery and sin, others discovered signs of God’s providence in earthly satisfaction. The result was at once to weaken and transpose the ideal of heavenly felicity, in effect bringing it to earth. Suffering was not our natural state. Happy was the way we were meant to be.
That shift was monumental, and its implications far reaching. Among other things, it was behind the transformation of the holiday season from a time of pious remembrance into one of unadulterated bliss. Yet the effects were greater than that. As Carlyle complained, “Every pitifulest whipster that walks within a skin has had his head...
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