Yeah, the very first unfunded mandate was slipped in at our founding. Right there in the U.S. Constitution, we are told the pursuit of happiness is our right. So get busy getting happy or… else.
Pascal Bruckner, writing in City Journal, lays out the case for compulsory joy as he contemplates the worldview regarding happiness as it changed through the ages:
…it [happiness — D] 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…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.
Obviously, we didn’t stick with any pre-Scientific Era nonsense regarding transcendence. Once the religion of Scientism took hold, that new orthodox cosmology held (and holds) that we can conquer unhappiness via our own efforts, thankyouverymuch. No pie in the sky needed when we can eat great gobs of it, our own choice of flavor, right here on our very own plate. Having your own plate is surely another right?
Christianity’s approval of that most human of qualities, i.e., curiosity provided the framework for countless evidence-based investigations aimed at knowledge for its own sake. In that sense, it was simply following its Aristotelian roots in trying to satisfy our appetite for new information obtained by observing the world around us and reporting on what we saw.
Thus, in a circuitous way, curiosity could indeed buy happiness, at least in the West. The more we knew, the happier we’d be. Theoretically, anyway.
Thus, one consequence of this pursuit led from a meticulous mapping of inheritance patterns in the humble pea by Mendel (an Augustinian monk) and ended (for the moment) with the Human Genome Project. Along the way, Mendel’s research led to improvements in agriculture. Now, in “developed” countries at least, hunger has been eradicated (of course, in those parts of the world where it’s still dog-eat-dog only those in charge have more than enough to eat).
We can see the same trajectory in alleviation of physical suffering. From aspirin to bypass heart surgery to diagnostic x-rays, in the world of those reading this post we are no longer at the mercy of fate. As things continue along this path, it will shortly become our duty not to suffer or cause our family and friends unhappiness by our stubborn refusal to go on in obvious pain when we can take simple measures to put an end to it. In some places, this is already happening, and good citizens are relieving their kin, their culture, and the economics of medicine by going quietly into the dark, thereby clearing out of the hospital bed for the next person’s use before the mattress gets cold.
So is everybody happy now? Well-nourished, as healthy as they can be (or choose to be, in many cases), are people fulfilling their duty to be happy? That’s correct: we’ve gone from pursuing happiness to being obliged to have it in hand at all times, ready to show it to any passing pollster.
Bruckner fills in the blanks between the ‘original’ American Constitution’s enumerations of rights and what we have today, which is far beyond what the authors of that document had in mind. What happened, he says, was a two-pronged transformational shift which led to our current frenzied chase after felicity.
First, a fundamental change in the concept of capitalism began as far back as the 1930s. Initially the economic underpinning of free market capitalism concerned production. Being a good capitalist required the deferral of gratification if you wanted to participate by purchasing the wares capitalism produced. In other words, it was slow; saving up for what you wanted meant fewer immediate purchasers and thus slower growth in the amount of goods produced. What better way to get out of a slump than to spend our way out? And thus, Keynesian magical thinking birthed the notion of credit:
[…] 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.
Good point, but then again how do we define the “real” when it comes to a vague term like value? If I want to buy the shirt off your back because you’re a famous person and having your shirt would give me some kind of mana and maybe cause a little envy among my friends, then what is the real value of your shirt? If you, Famous Person, are badly in need of a fix and I happen to have the goods available, then is the real value of your shirt a quick slap on the back by my Henry Jones?
Obviously, value is fungible. We make an economic exchange: your shirt (did I say your autographed shirt with a picture of you wearing it?) for my heroin. Then if I can turn around and sell your piece of clothing to one of your fans for some obscene price, the value of your shirt has risen. Given the right circumstances, I could have your whole wardrobe up for sale.
Thus, the first transformation was in the way we conceived of credit and what we (our culture) thought of people who used their credit to its full extent — the full extent perhaps moving well beyond what you might ever be able to pay back. In the beginning, of course, a man who lived on credit was considered morally bankrupt — except maybe for the titled aristocrat in England, who didn’t have to follow the same rules as the people from whom he bought goods and services — or at least “got” them even if he never paid out anything.
Among the untitled very rich Americans, it was often the same. They aped their titled peers across the Atlantic. Thus was President Kennedy infamous for his casual approach toward what he owed; the man never carried money but he expected goods on demand nonetheless. He was a perfect role model for the careless rich who flowered after his brief moment of fame.
Bruckner says that the second transformation occurred with the rise of individualism in the 1960s. We were now weighed down with a very heavy load — our very own selves:
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.
It also promised, at least implicitly, a potential agelessness. No one said they were immortal, but appeasing the gods of exercise and diet and thinking good thoughts was supposed to guarantee our right to skip old age entirely, à la Nancy Pelosi.
Working so hard on being fulfilled, we feel entitled to happiness. Is there any surer path to an Eternal Grievance than this? And the other edge of that sword is also sharp: Eternal Guilt. If I’m not happy and fulfilled, whose fault is that? Bruckner says that “sadness is the disease of a society of obligatory well-being that penalizes those who do not attain it”. However, he may be missing the more insidious outcome of a culturally imposed obligatory happiness. It may be that instead of pursuing an ever more evasive happiness, the search becomes a frenzied need to find another entity onto whose shoulders we can heap the blame for our lack of joy.
Use your imagination for that one, or just follow your nose. For example, there is this study from 2009, “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness”. Here’s the quick summary:
The lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years by many objective measures, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men.
This decline in relative wellbeing is found across various datasets, measures of subjective wellbeing, demographic groups, and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s reported higher subjective well-being than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging-one with higher subjective well-being for men.
And who is to blame for the decline? Further on they note “the shift of rights and bargaining power from men to women over those years”. It follows, does it not, that more power means more happiness? Well, not really. Because women are still being victimized, you see:
Social and legal changes have given people more autonomy over individual and family decision making, including rights over marriage, children born out of wedlock, the use of birth control, abortion, and divorce (Stevenson and Wolfers 2007 ). However, men may have been able to disproportionately benefit from these increased opportunities. For example, George A. Akerlof, Janet L. Yellen, and Michael L. Katz (1996) argue that sexual freedom offered by the birth control pill may have benefited men by increasing the pressure on women to have sex outside of marriage and reducing their bargaining power over a shotgun marriage in the face of an unwanted pregnancy. There have also been large changes in family life during this period. Divorce rates doubled between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, and while they have been falling since the late 1970s, the stock of divorced people has continued to grow (Stevenson and Wolfers 2007 ).
It’s a long report so perhaps somewhere they also note that most divorces are initiated by women, which is certainly the ultimate power, no? In the era of “No Fault Divorce” men are often left to swing in the wind.
So why do women divorce? Because they aren’t “happy” or fulfilled in their marriage “relationship”. In other words, they’ve drunk huge draughts of the Happiness Kool-Aid they find everywhere and they now want “something better” than they have. [Men do this, too, with their Trophy Wives, but that’s for the rich, not for the average joe.]
As the report notes, these findings are consistent among women in the U.S. and in Europe. Women are simply more unhappy than men and it’s not fair. It’s also not fair that their decision to impoverish the whole family in their pursuit of happiness often leaves them with less money and less time. Not to mention what it does to their children, which is decidedly unfair.
Anecdotally, this follows along with the emails we get, particularly the so-called jokes about men. Jokes about women’s stupidity, tactlessness, cluelessness, and general boorish behavior are almost unheard of. In fact, could you use the word “boor” at all in discussing a woman’s behavior? If not, what is the equivalent word for a woman who behaves like one? [It has to be a PG-13 term since the word “boor” meets that qualification].
Women live longer than men. They often die wealthier, too. Adult children are likely to keep in more frequent contact with their mothers than they are with their fathers.
But still, women aren’t happy. Or rather, they’re more unhappy generally speaking than are men. And they never tire of telling their unhappiness to people like the academics who did this study.
In truth, they are more deluded than anything else. Happiness is inherently fleeting. Life is a vale of tears, always was and always will be. Why? Because it ends eventually, and like it or not, your turn to shuffle off this mortal coil comes eventually.
Grown-ups accept the ambiguities of life, its slings and arrows. They not only don’t demand happiness, they can tolerate great amounts of tedium. Only children demand novelty and ceaseless fun, fun, fun.
This obligation to exist in a state of utopian happiness has caused untold misery. It’s the root of our very large abortion industry and it fuels our nascent but growing euthanasia business. Babies and old people are inconvenient and expensive. Both kinds of life are dependent and burdensome. So we simply jettison these inconveniences at the opposite ends of the spectrum.
Dull spouses are inconvenient, too, and often as easy to put aside, which is fortunate, since it’s your inescapable obligation to be happy.
Hey, it’s in the Constitution!