Condemned to Joy: the cult of happiness is a mirthless enterprise

Extracts from Pascal Bruckner:

On August 21, 1670, Jacques Bossuet, the bishop of Meaux and official preacher to the court of Louis XIV, pronounced the eulogy for Princess Henrietta of England before the Prince of Condé. The Duchess of Orléans had died at 26 after drinking a glass of chicory that may have been poisoned. At the threshold of death, the young woman had called on priests rather than doctors, embraced the crucifix, asked for the holy sacraments, and cried out to God. The wonder of death, Bossuet exclaimed, citing Saint Anthony, was that “for the Christian, it does not put an end to life but rather to the sins and perils to which life is exposed. God abbreviates our temptations along with our days; he thus sets a limit to occasions that might cost us true, eternal life; for this world is nothing but our common exile.” The good death was a door opened on eternity, a passage to that “true, eternal life.” In this life, by contrast, agony was expected.

Is it possible to imagine an attitude toward happiness and living further from our own?

Notwithstanding the Jacobin leader Saint-Just’s famous remark, happiness was never “a new idea in Europe.” In fact, it was the oldest of ideas, defended by the ancients and pondered by the great philosophical schools. But Christianity, which inherited the notion from Greek and Latin writers, changed it with a view to transcendence: man’s concern here below must be not joy but salvation. Christ alone redeems us from original sin and puts us on the path to divine truth. All earthly pleasures, according to the Christian authors, are but phantoms from the point of view of celestial beatitude. To wish for earthly happiness would be a sin against the Spirit; the passing pleasures of mortals are nothing compared with the hell that awaits sinners who pant after them.

This rigorous conception gave way over the centuries to a more accommodating view of life. The eighteenth century saw the rise of new techniques that improved agricultural production; it also saw new medicines—in particular, alkaloids and salicylic acid, an ancestor of aspirin whose curative and analgesic properties worked wonders. Suddenly, this world was no longer condemned to be a vale of tears; man now had the power to reduce hunger, ameliorate illness, and better master his future. People stopped listening to those who justified suffering as the will of God. If I could relieve pain simply by ingesting some substance, there was no need to have recourse to prayer to feel better.

The new conception of happiness was captured in a phrase of Voltaire’s in 1736: “Earthly paradise is here where I am.” Voltaire was, of course, pursued by the Church and the monarchy; he was threatened with death, and his writings were burned. But his proposition deserves attention. If paradise is here where I am, then happiness is here and now, not yesterday, in an age for which I might be nostalgic, and even less in some hypothetical future. In this upheaval of temporal perspectives, poverty and distress lose all legitimacy, and the whole work of enlightened nations becomes eliminating them through education and reason, and eventually science and industry. Human misfortune would be rendered an archaic residue.

After the American and French Revolutions (the first of which inscribed the pursuit of happiness in its founding document), the right to a decent life and the privileged status of pleasure became the order of the day for progressive movements across Europe. It is true that in the early twentieth century, the Bolsheviks curiously rehabilitated the Christian ideal of sacrifice by exhorting the proletariat to fight and work until the great coming of the Revolution; ironically, asceticism returned within a doctrine that denounced religion as the opiate of the masses and that relentlessly persecuted priests, pastors, and believers wherever it took power. But overall, throughout the twentieth century, hedonism’s claims grew ever stronger under the influence of Freudianism, feminism, and the avant-garde in art and politics.

In  the 1960s, two major shifts transformed the right to happiness into the duty of happiness. The first was a shift in the nature of capitalism, which had long revolved around production and the deferral of gratification, but now focused on making us all good consumers. Working no longer sufficed; buying was also necessary for the industrial machine to run at full capacity. To make this shift possible, an ingenious invention had appeared not long before, first in America in the 1930s and then in Europe in the 1950s: credit. In an earlier time, anyone who wanted to buy a car, some furniture, or a house followed a rule that now seems almost unknown: he waited, setting aside his nickels and dimes. But credit changed everything; frustration became intolerable and satisfaction normal; to do without seemed absurd. We would live well in the present and pay back later. Today, we’re all aware of the excesses that resulted from this system, since the financial meltdown in the United States was the direct consequence of too many people living on credit, to the point of borrowing hundreds of times the real value of their possessions.

The second shift was the rise of individualism. Since nothing opposed our fulfillment any longer—neither church nor party nor social class—we became solely responsible for what happened to us. It proved an awesome burden: if I don’t feel happy, I can blame no one but myself. So it was no surprise that a vast number of fulfillment industries arose, ranging from cosmetic surgery to diet pills to innumerable styles of therapy, all promising reconciliation with ourselves and full realization of our potential. “Become your own best friend, learn self-esteem, think positive, dare to live in harmony,” we were told by so many self-help books, though their very number suggested that these were not such easy tasks. The idea of fulfillment, though the successor to a more demanding ethic, became a demand itself. The dominant order no longer condemns us to privation; it offers us paths to self-realization with a kind of maternal solicitude.

This generosity is by no means a liberation in every respect. In fact, a kind of charitable coercion engenders the malaise from which it then strives to deliver us. The statistics that it publicizes and the models that it holds up produce a new race of guilty parties, no longer sybarites or libertines but killjoys. Sadness is the disease of a society of obligatory well-being that penalizes those who do not attain it. Happiness is no longer a matter of chance or a heavenly gift, an amazing grace that blesses our monotonous days. We now owe it to ourselves to be happy, and we are expected to display our happiness far and wide.. Thus happiness becomes not only the biggest industry of the age but also a new moral order. We now find ourselves guilty of not being well, a failing for which we must answer to everyone and to our own consciences..

..What is needed is a renewed humility. We are not the masters of the sources of happiness; they ever elude the appointments we make with them, springing up when we least expect them and fleeing when we would hold them close. The excessive ambition to expunge all that is weak or broken in body or mind, to control moods and states of soul, sadness, chagrin, moments of emptiness—all this runs up against our finitude, against the inertia of the human species, which we cannot manipulate like some raw material. We have the power to avoid or to heal certain evils, yes, but we cannot order happiness as if it were a meal in a restaurant.

The Western cult of happiness is indeed a strange adventure, something like a collective intoxication. In the guise of emancipation, it transforms a high ideal into its opposite. Condemned to joy, we must be happy or lose all standing in society. It is not a question of knowing whether we are more or less happy than our ancestors; our conception of the thing itself has changed, and we are probably the first society in history to make people unhappy for not being happy…” 

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NB: A more complex reflection on the same theme is provided by the American philosopher Stanley Rosen in an essay named Sad Reason (1999). In this, he speaks of one of the consequences of the postponement of gratification, as being “..the simultaneous stimulation and stupefaction of our spiritual faculties that is induced by the endless pursuit of happiness. In slightly different terms, the residents of modernity alternate between radical new proposals for the attainment of happiness and admissions of temporary failure. The result is that while we anticipate happiness, we experience sadness directly. This anticipation is easily confused with happiness, especially because of the intensity with which we throw ourselves into revolutionary enterprises. With apologies to the psychiatrists, I call this manic depression, and this, I suggest, is the peculiar feature of late-modern sadness..” Italics added – DS