Pursuit of Happiness
|Darrin M. McMahon, author of Happiness: A History|
McMahon is tonight's main speaker on On Point Radio with Tom Ashbrook. According to McMahon, the world has not always considered happiness a goal within the reach of the individual person. That is, it would not be available within this lifetime. The word "happiness" derives from the same root as our word "happenstance" or "happen" or "mishap," all of which denote something out of our control. "Shit happens," in the words of a once popular bumper sticker. Or maybe something good happens. Happiness lay in the luck of the draw, but so did misery.
Christianity picked up on this idea, stressing that life was full of suffering and that only in the next world would people be truly happy--and that, only if you made it to heaven.
It was not until the Protestant reformation, with Martin Luther, that the idea of happiness as God's reward for virtue began to take root. This developed over the next centuries into the Enlightenment, when a Rousseau would put forth the idea of happiness as, not only a possibility for the individual, but as a right.
Thomas Jefferson suggested this right in his Declaration of Independence, stating that all men are entitled to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
However, even then the idea of a pursuit of happiness was not intended as the entitlement we think of today, and happiness itself still held a community component. Happiness resulted from a community that lived in peace. It came about when a person lived in harmony with society and nature, and was not a right a person could demand on the basis of their being.
It is interesting to consider how far we've come in our attitude toward happiness. Happiness is our right. We seek it through possessions, through sex, through drugs, through activity. When we don't achieve it, we tend to blame our situation, our neighbor, our government. Our rights should enable us to attain happiness, and when our rights are infringed upon, we lose our ability to be happy.
But, observing the lack of happiness in those who should be enjoying it the most--those most gifted with the rights we all claim--one wonders what has gone wrong. One listener pointed out the social component of happiness during early centuries. Happiness resulted from a well-ordered community, from healthy relationships. It comes when we can put the common good ahead of our own individual benefit.
I found this talk extremely provocative, and would like to read the book, Happiness: a History.