Happiness: A History

A Diary

A history of happiness is a funny thing, since, for a long time, happiness was viewed as merely the absence of history. No one lived for happiness the way we do today. In an individual life, it would have been a lack of catastrophic events. As the goal of an era, or civilization, it would have meant stasis, absolutely nothing happening. If you did hit the blank-time jackpot of happiness, the best thing to do was drop dead.

Then came modernity. “Periods of happiness are blank pages in history,” Hegel declared—summarizing the ancient view—and proceeded to spill ink all over them. The more optimistic savants of the era began writing happiness directly into history, into life. They made happiness the goal of civilization, and of the individual living in civilization. The young Saint-Just was probably exaggerating for rhetorical effect when he declared, in 1792, “Happiness is a new idea in Europe.” But he wasn’t wrong. He should have looked across the ocean, too. From the American and French Revolutions forward, engineers of happiness came into firm control. Ideas like “the pursuit of happiness” and the “greatest happiness for the greatest number” migrated from the academies and drawing rooms of 18th-century thinkers to the Continental Congress and the National Assembly. While cheerful Bentham doodled plans for his perfect prison, gloomy Carlyle recognized utility and its pleasures as the “idols of the age.”

The principle of happiness was going to provide the key to a Newtonian science of the human. Traders and treasurers were thrilled: Self-interest would put greed and morality together with a big fat smile. Definitions of happiness were called for and experts stepped forward to provide them. The invading authorities are still with us: economists, political scientists, and brain doctors.

Not everyone in the 19th century went down the long slide to happiness, endlessly. Novelists said again and again they would never represent happiness. Tolstoy’s opening line about all happy families being the same is the best known, but Balzac, too, said, “Le Bonheur n’a pas d’histoire,” happiness has no story. The novel’s only actual version of happiness—marriage—came to seem, toward the end of the century, something of a dark joke. After all that trouble, went the joke, you marry Gilbert Osmond. Those who tried to get away from the marriage plot by seeking their own happiness—Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina—got just what they didn’t deserve. The novel didn’t make you any promises. Quite the opposite: it could have scared you off of life. But somehow its congenital unhappiness actually made you want to live.

And the philosophical tradition, too, secreted an antitoxin, in its own form of institutionalized unhappiness—critique. From Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, to the Western Marxism of the 20th century, the unhappy consciousness of a certain kind of philosopher gave you the only hope comparable to that of the novel. Where the novel was personal and individual, critique was historical and social. Adorno: “The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.”

But it looks today like the happiness doctors have won. Totalitarian states enforced happiness through love of force, worship of terror, submergence in the mass. Liberal democracy was more easygoing about it, and that proved wiser. Pills keep us cheerful; sex is healthy exercise; violent light entertainment passes the time. Aldous Huxley wrote a letter to George Orwell right after 1984 appeared, in which he praised the Big Brother vision but had to say he thought his own prediction of the future would be a lot closer to the truth. Not a boot stomping on your face for all eternity, but a society in which preferring unhappiness—because you didn’t want happiness by ersatz means—would be the totally unintelligible thing. We are told the terrorists hate our freedoms—but who was freer than those guys, riding around Afghanistan in pick-up trucks with Kalashnikovs? It’s not our freedoms we’re going to bring the peoples of the world. No, we’re going to bring them our happiness.

Right now, we wouldn’t mind a bit of it ourselves. But the bottles—they’re empty. We never were good about filling a prescription. And the baggie in the canister is all stems and seeds. Not that we can afford any more from Bad Andy. . . . Unless—

In a row under the bed, a bit dusty, is the motherlode. Books upon books. So many candy-colored University of Minnesota paperbacks—Lyotard, de Man, Irigaray—actually, all kind of the same color as the pills. These books were going to be a rebuke to everything false. We were going to bring this false civilization down. Well, to hell with you, Foucault! And to hell with you, Lacan!


The bookstore clerk looks at his watch. “Theory’s dead,” he says. “A year ago.”

“Does that mean you aren’t going to buy the books?” we ask.

“If you’ll take store credit.”

The colossal face of Derrida stares up at us, in death, as in life, made of granite. This face was made for Mt. Rushmore. Derrida seems to say: “Take store credit.”

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