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The Duty to Be Happy

Posted by Josh Rothman  February 28, 2011 06:10 AM

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Is the importance of happiness overstated? That's the question the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner asks in Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy, a book-length essay on happiness and its place in our lives. (The introduction is online here.) Bruckner's conclusion is that we don't just overstate the importance of happiness; we make a fatal mistake in thinking of happiness as a kind of duty. If we're not happy, we feel as though we've committed a crime against ourselves; if we are happy, we feel as though we've accomplished something.

Bruckner's essay, published ten years ago in France, has just been translated into English by Steven Rendall. Its basic argument is historical. For centuries, Bruckner explains, Western society focused on heavenly things. Happiness, if you were lucky enough to get some in this life, was understood only as a nice bonus, fleeting and illusory. What really mattered was the state of your soul - and it was suffering, not happiness, that would bring your soul closer to God. Bruckner quotes his namesake, Pascal, who wrote: "It is not shameful to die in pain - it is shameful to die in pleasure."

Modern Westerners, for good reason, look at things differently. Most people, even the very religious, are focused on getting the most out of our earthly lives: we want to be happy. The problem, Bruckner argues, is that pursuing your own happiness is actually harder and less satisfying than trying to perfect your soul. The old way of thinking made something useful out of suffering; the new way of thinking sees suffering as a senseless waste. And the truth about happiness, as Bruckner sees it, is that it's rarely very effectively pursued. Happiness is really about luck and grace; you can be thankful for happiness, but you can't manufacture it. In fact, thinking of being happy as the sole aim of life makes happiness less meaningful. "Now that it has become the only horizon of our democratic societies," Bruckner writes, happiness, "being connected with work, will, and effort... is necessarily a source of anguish." We work at being happy - and, in working at it, rob ourselves of everything spontaneous and really joyful about happiness.

Bruckner isn't saying that we shouldn't be happy; what outrages him is the way modern society can turn happiness into a competition. Happy people, he thinks, tend to lord their happiness over unhappy people; unhappy people tend to feel that, if they aren't happy, then their lives are failures. In fact, many unhappy people lead very valuable lives, and assiduously cultivated happiness is sometimes not particularly valuable. Bruckner's argument, like his prose, is necessarily over the top, because it has to swim upstream against the unceasing current of books and articles about how we can and must be happier. It boils down, though, to a simple and valuable idea. Suffering is a natural part of life; it counts as living, too.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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