Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Pursuit of Happiness

This morning I was browsing through a listing of discounted e-books I don't need, when I noticed this review excerpt, quoted to tout B. F.'s Daughter by J. P. Marquand:
“No one can write more engagingly of their search for happiness. Or of their sulks when they discover—too late, alas—that happiness must be earned.” —The New York Times Book Review
Wait a minute, I thought, since when does happiness have to be earned?  For that matter, how do you earn it?

There's no agreement about what happiness is, but I think most people recognize that it's elusive.  You can be unhappy despite having all the conventional advantages -- wealth, comfort, a loving family, etc.  You can be happy despite the lack of such advantages.  People work hard, dutifully, all their lives hoping to achieve or earn happiness, either in livelihood or in personal relationships, and then find themselves wondering why it didn't work.

In English, at least, "happy" and "happiness" originally meant "good fortune" or luck.  But it also meant "a pleasant and contented mental state."  The first sense, which I often encountered in English literature from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, hadn't completely died out by the time B. F.'s Daughter was first published in 1946, but I suspect most Americans have forgotten it by now.  I suspect that the second sense, though, derives from the first: if you are content and feel pleasant, it's not something you've achieved, it's something that happened (same root) to you, by luck or good fortune. So the idea that happiness "must be earned" is, it seems to me, obviously ridiculous. Perhaps (same root) you can improve your chances by judicious action, but happiness is ultimately beyond your control: in the hands of the goddess Fortune, who like all gods will knock you over just to hear the splat.  (Read the book of Job sometime, if you haven't already: the malignant whimsicality of gods is not specifically a 'pagan' idea.  Nor is it limited to Job: doesn't Yahweh say somewhere else, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy"?  [Yep: Exodus 33:19, quoted by Paul in Romans 9:15.])  I'm almost tempted to find the original review to learn who wrote such a silly thing.  Maybe I will.

What makes that second sentence not merely silly but pernicious is the implication that if you aren't happy, it's your fault.  You didn't work hard enough. You were lazy.  You thought the world owes you a living.  Or Catch-22: You must have done something wrong, or you wouldn't be sad.  Or a theological version: You thought you could compel God to give you happiness through your own efforts, so you deserve to be miserable; the beatings will continue until your morale improves.  Stop whining or God will give you something to cry about!

I'm not blaming Marquand for the foolishness of his reviewer, mind you.  But I do wonder why this vendor, seventy-odd years after the book was published, chose to highlight this quotation to recommend it.