Get Happy!! | The Nation


Get Happy!!

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

As Jill Lepore observes in her clever but chaotic The Mansion of Happiness, religious definitions of happiness persisted throughout the nineteenth century (although she doesn’t mention it, they have carried on into the present as well). “O Lord! deliver us from sin, and when we shall have finished our earthly course, admit us to the mansion of bliss and happiness,” an evangelical preacher intoned in 1814. The original Mansion of Happiness was a pious, popular board game; revised from an English version for an American audience in 1843, it sold briskly for decades. According to its rules, the game

The Mansion of Happiness.
A History of Life and Death.
By Jill Lepore.
Buy this book

Pursuing the Good Life
100 Reflections on Positive Psychology.
By Christopher Peterson.
Buy this book

The Myths of Happiness
What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t. What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does.
By Sonja Lyubomirsky.
Buy this book

The Happiness of Pursuit
What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life.
By Shimon Edelman.
Buy this book

The Antidote
Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.
By Oliver Burkeman.
Buy this book

How Much Is Enough?
Money and the Good Life.
By Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky.
Buy this book

About the Author

Jackson Lears
Jackson Lears teaches American history at Rutgers University. He is the editor of Raritan: A Quarterly Review and the...

Also by the Author

Keep talkin' happy talk… till the fat lady sings…

Republic or empire?

shows (while vice destruction brings)
That good from every virtue springs.
Be virtuous then and forward press,
To gain the seat of happiness.

No believing Christian could doubt that abiding happiness was reserved for the afterlife, while this earthly realm remained dominated by struggle and sorrow. But by 1860, signs of slippage from this orthodoxy were apparent, even in such didactic board games as Milton Bradley’s Checkered Game of Life, which ended (if you were lucky) in Happy Old Age. In 1960, to commemorate the centennial of the Checkered Game, the Milton Bradley Company issued another version, the Game of Life. Instead of virtue rewarded by heavenly happiness, Lepore writes, the Game of Life offered “a lesson in consumer conformity, a two-dimensional Levittown, complete with paychecks and retirement homes and medical bills.” Players who successfully navigated their tiny station wagons along the Highway of Life could retire, at length, in Millionaire Acres.

* * *

One is tempted to chart American attitudes toward happiness by contrasting these two board games, but cultural change is never that straightforward. Many people in the contemporary United States (to say nothing of the rest of the world) continue to invest their most fervent hopes for happiness in the next world rather than this one; many more (believers and unbelievers alike) conceive happiness in more capacious and complex terms than arrival at Millionaire Acres. In the United States between the 1860s and the 1960s, various populist and progressive challenges to laissez-faire liberalism arose and reasserted the claims of commonwealth against wealth, often in Christian language. Wealth has always co-existed, sometimes uneasily, with other criteria of happiness—an unstable compound of objective and subjective states.

By the early twentieth century, the subjective side of happiness was acquiring more demanding dimensions. For Americans, the discovery (or invention) of the unconscious mind endowed the human subject with a new and practically bottomless reservoir of mental powers to be cultivated, called upon in times of stress, and pressed into the service of the pursuit of happiness. In a flood of self-help literature, a discourse of positive thinking emerged. Popular magazine articles advised readers “How You Can Do More and Be More,” and even thinkers as sophisticated as William James became fascinated by phenomena such as the “second wind” that seemed to promise access to abundant psychic energy. Visions of psychic abundance proliferated alongside visions of economic abundance in a society increasingly driven by the mass consumption of mass-produced goods. Personal growth somehow would accompany economic growth. The self-made hero of the Horatio Alger tale, the sign of whose success was an appointment as a bank clerk, gave way to the pop-Nietzschean titans of Theodore Dreiser’s novels—men like Frank Cowperwood of The Financier (1912), whose motto was “I satisfy myself,” and who proceeded to live up to it by flouting conventional norms at every turn. An obsession with Energy and Force (always capitalized) characterized much of the literature and social thought of the decades just before World War I, accelerating an active pursuit of happiness by associating contentment with stasis and stasis with death. To be sure, the progressive muckraker Ray Stannard Baker (under the pen name David Grayson) produced a popular series of essays called Adventures in Contentment. But they were largely exercises in nostalgic pastoralism, with Baker pitting himself against the spirit of the age. The dominant impulse, at least among the literate white men who shaped much of the conventional wisdom, was to recoil from stillness and celebrate an endlessly renewable vitality. 

This vitalism was erotic at its core. Some vitalists, including the psychologist G. Stanley Hall, endowed sexual intercourse with a sacred significance. “In the most unitary of all acts, which is the epitome and pleroma of life, we have the most intense of all affirmations of the will to live and realize that the only true God is love, and the center of life is worship,” Hall wrote in Adolescence (1904). “Now the race is incarnated in the individual and remembers its lost paradise.” From this view, Lepore observes, sex was “a mansion of happiness, regained.” But vitalism was erotic in a more than sexual sense. It recaptured the original meaning of eros as pursuit rather than fulfillment. “How dull it is to pause, to make an end,” cried Tennyson’s Ulysses, a line that Theodore Roosevelt used as the epigraph to The Strenuous Life. For Progressive-era vitalists, happiness was always in process, always becoming, never being. It was as if American men—and increasingly, American women—were being urged to emulate Goethe’s Faust, never saying “to the passing moment, ‘stay.’” 

The vitalist psychology of abundance was primarily self-referential; through the 1920s, it fit well with the emerging ideology of national advertising. These two streams of thought converged to create an enduring aesthetic of corporate-sponsored normality and desire, an outlook that strove to be on the cutting edge of technological and cultural change. It was conventionally chic and even luxurious, but grounded in a bourgeois ethos of sensible striving—Arrow-collared men smoking Camels, feet propped on the running boards of their Jordan convertibles. 

* * *

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size