by Scot McKnight
What is happiness? Richard Layard, one of Britain's best-known economists and a world expert on inequality, doesn't shy from the challenge: "Happiness is feeling good, and misery is feeling bad." He continues: "It is supremely important because it is our overall motivational device." Not to put too fine of a point on it, "The search for good feeling is the mechanism that has preserved and multiplied the human race." The philosopher Jennifer Michael Hecht, well-known author of a book about doubt, says "Happiness is feeling good." Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who strikes me as hilarious (and happy), claims happiness is "the you-know-what-I-mean-feeling." Even Darrin McMahon, after his poetic exploration of the history of ideas, finds a way—when his final chapter comes to the contemporary situation—to morph the word "happiness" into feeling good. For two centuries voices in the rodeo have announced that happiness is pleasure, it is a right, it is achievable in the here and now, and they or at least their publisher knows how to get it. For such folks, happiness is subjective, it is feeling good about myself, and, as both Layard and Arthur C. Brooks have argued, it is worthy of central focus in both politics and economics. And yet, like Civita's tufa, this understanding of happiness—so widely shared, so commonsensical—has long been eroding before our eyes.
Happiness: "Defac't, deflourd, and now to Death devote?"
Long ago, of course, Jesus and St. Paul, Augustine and Luther warned against any conception of happiness anchored exclusively in this world. Not only were the latter two bathed in the early Christian eschatological hope that sanctified suffering in this world as the lot of those who followed the crucified Lord, but they had both absorbed enough dualism from Plato to know that gazing at de civitate Dei turned one's eyes from the civitas terrena. We are, they both thought, civitas peregrina, resident aliens in the vale of tears. Luther absorbed and extended Augustine's anthropology in a way that turned the Christian into simul iustus et peccator because, after all, the righteousness of a Christian is iustitia aliena. This alien righteousness dug deeply into the heart, but it what it created was a yearning for the City of God.
Hegel, with all nuances now put to the side, narrowed down human yearning to the dialectic of history. "History," Hegel complained, "is not the soil in which happiness grows. The periods of happiness in it are the blank pages of history." Then along came the Marxist socialist experiment, its official view expressed in The Great Soviet Encyclopedia: "In the history of moral consciousness, happiness has been considered an innate human right; but in practice, in a society of antagonisms, as F. Engels pointed out, the oppressed classes' striving toward happiness has always been ruthlessly and 'lawfully' sacrificed to the ruling classes' identical striving." Marxism is dying a slow death, but one of its victims for many was a legitimate pursuit of the right to happiness. Marx's haunting words are these: "The overcoming of religion as the illusory happiness [illusorischen Glücks] of the people is the demand for their real happiness [wirklichen Glücks]." McMahon's words do the job: "A critique of Marx, by contrast, is a critique of the remnants of religion in his philosophy. And the halo of this is happiness." Darwin was at least more optimistic, for he thought the fittest who survived were also the happiest. On Darwin the 20th century built its debunking of happiness.
It's not just evolutionary schemes that deface happiness. Postmodernist historians and philosophy deflower happiness by reminding us of our "cognitive comas." Hecht, in a book that mixes insight and wisdom with skeptical, bold opinion, lays it out like this: "Our rules for living are more like the history of pop songs. They make their weird sense only to the people of each given time period. They aren't true." Two pages earlier she opened that envelope: "Most of the strictures we live under are just cultural stories, no more inherently true than the cultural stories of any other period in history." She has hope in the study of history: "What a paralyzing potion culture can be! The antidote is history." Then, turning down the volume of her postmodern historiography, Hecht dispenses some advice: "your worst barrier against happiness is you, your own wrong thinking. Your four problems are these: You cannot see yourself or much about the world you live in. You are ruled by desire and emotion. You will not take your place or rise to your role. You are alternately oblivious to death or terrified of it. As such, your job is to master these four errors in yourself … . None of this comes easily; it has to be practiced a great deal, and it never works completely. However, there is no useful alternative to the effort." Few make it.