Reading books about how to be happy can be a depressing business. Part of this is because one can’t help imagining the sad souls who buy them, hoping to turn around a troubled life for $27.99 or less. Indeed, the how-to manuals are only part of a broad, obsessive and flourishing effort to pursue happiness more directly and systematically than ever before. Courses in “positive psychology” attract thousands of students at elite universities; there is even a Journal of Happiness Studies, which has touted among many startling revelations the discovery that “Positivity was associated [through survey research] with norms about ideal life satisfaction such that countries and individuals who highly valued positive emotions were more likely to display positivity.” It doesn’t take a social scientist to see that a blizzard of how-to books on “positivity” suggests its lack in everyday life. Behind the facade of smiley-faced optimism, American culture seems awash in a pervasive sadness, or at least a restless longing for a sense of fulfillment that remains just out of reach.
Whether such discontent is more intense or pervasive now than it was fifty or 150 years ago is an unanswerable question. “There have been periods happier and others more desperate than ours,” the conservative cultural critic Ernest van den Haag observed in 1956. “But we don’t know which.” Samuel Beckett put the matter more sweepingly and poetically: “The tears of the world are a constant quantity,” he wrote, and “the same is true of the laugh.” But while it is impossible to chart the ebb and flow of emotions historically, to identify some epochs as happier or sadder than others, it is possible to explore the ways that dominant notions of happiness reflect the changing needs and desires of the culturally powerful at various historical moments. One can write the history of ideas about happiness, if not of happiness itself.
And that is another reason the current spate of happiness manuals is so depressing: their ideas of happiness embody the conventional wisdom of our time, which can best be characterized as scientism—a concept not to be confused with science, as Steven Pinker did in a recent New Republic polemic that attempted to bridge the seeming divide between the humanities and the sciences. The vast majority of practicing scientists (except for a few propagandists like Pinker) probably do not embrace scientism, but it is the idiom journalists use to popularize scientific findings for a nonscientific audience. It is not, to be sure, an outlook based on the scientific method—the patient weighing of experimental results, the reframing of questions in response to contrary evidence, the willingness to live with epistemological uncertainty. Quite the contrary: scientism is a revival of the nineteenth-century positivist faith that a reified “science” has discovered (or is about to discover) all the important truths about human life. Precise measurement and rigorous calculation, in this view, are the basis for finally settling enduring metaphysical and moral controversies—explaining consciousness and choice, replacing ambiguity with certainty. The most problematic applications of scientism have usually arisen in the behavioral sciences, where the varieties and perversities of experience have often been reduced to quantitative data that are alleged to reveal an enduring “human nature.”
The scientism on display in the happiness manuals offers a strikingly vacuous worldview, one devoid of history, culture or political economy. Its chief method is self-reported survey research; its twin conceptual pillars are pop evolutionary psychology, based on just-so stories about what human life was like on the African savannah 100,000 years ago, and pop neuroscience, based on sweeping, unsubstantiated claims about brain function gleaned from fragments of contemporary research. The worldview of the happiness manuals, like that in other self-help literature, epitomizes “the triumph of the therapeutic” described some decades ago by the sociologist Philip Rieff: the creation of a world where all overarching structures of meaning have collapsed, and there is “nothing at stake beyond a manipulatable sense of well-being.” With good reason, Rieff attributed the triumph of the therapeutic to the shrinking authority of Christianity in the West. But because he did not see the connections between therapeutic and capitalist worldviews, he could not foresee their convergence in late twentieth-century neoliberalism. For Margaret Thatcher as for the happiness industry, “There is no such thing as society.” There are only individuals, regulating their inner and outer lives in order to sustain and increase personal satisfaction.
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That outlook isn’t new. The assumptions central to the current happiness boom—that happiness consists in pleasurable experiences, and that human life can be organized to maximize those experiences—stem from the utilitarian creed developed by Jeremy Bentham and supposedly committed to promoting “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” With respect to political economy, the utilitarian outlook could underwrite everything from laissez-faire capitalism to Soviet communism. The delivery systems for happiness varied, but the promised goal was always the same: physical comfort and material abundance for all (or at least as many as might be willing to work for it, in the productivist formulation that tended to dominate this tradition). Happiness, from the utilitarian view, was “our being’s end and aim,” as Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1843, quoting Alexander Pope. But Carlyle was not amused: “Every pitifulest whipster that walks within a skin has had his head filled with the notion that he is, shall be, or by all human and divine laws ought to be, ‘happy.’ The prophets preach to us, Thou shalt be happy; thou shalt love pleasant things, and find them. The people clamour, Why have we not found pleasant things?” This is the dialectic that has dominated modern political discourse for more than two centuries.
Still, the idioms have varied. In the United States, the “pursuit of happiness” was enshrined in the nation’s founding document. The phrase marked a decisive departure from traditional notions that happiness—derived from the Old Norse hap, or “chance”—was a gift of fate. Now it was a goal to be actively sought. But the definition of happiness was very much up for grabs. Jefferson’s phrase combined a liberal zeal for private gain with republican commitments to the public good. This balance of tensions epitomized what Tocqueville believed was the force that kept democracy in America from flying into anarchic fragments. It was “self-interest rightly understood”—self-interest tamed and chastened by commitments to family, community and polity. For Tocqueville, happiness was partly a manifestation of reciprocity. But in the emerging market society of the nineteenth century, the notion of public good was increasingly privatized as the sum of individual self-interests. If the good life was no longer publicly debated or collectively defined, the pursuit of happiness became a personal quest, usually with a monetary measure of success.