The Pursuit of Happiness in Perspective

“You can’t move in Britain for people trying to make you happy,” complained a British journalist recently in the pages of the Guardian.[1] He was drawing attention to his country’s current, and apparently all-consuming, interest in happiness. Works of self-help psychology line the shelves of the country’s bookstores, “happiness studies” thrives as an academic discipline, and politicians and policymakers — both Labour and Tory — are pushing to make happiness a central issue of statecraft. As the noted British economist Lord Richard Layard declared not long ago, “Happiness should become the goal of policy, and the progress of national happiness should be measured and analyzed as closely as the growth of GNP.”[2]

Such aspirations are hardly confined to Great Britain. In the United States, Europe, and throughout much of the developed world, happiness has emerged in recent years as a subject of intense scrutiny—prodded by psychologists, economists, sociologists, and policy makers in what has been styled a “new science.” The subject of countless cover stories, books, and news documentaries, happiness may be thought of, rightly, as the “the sole horizon of our democracies.”[3] Seemingly, we can see nothing else.

The question is what this myopia means: Is our focus on happiness in contemporary culture taking us closer to our coveted end? Or does our self-conscious striving and frenetic pursuit signal something else?

The Recent History of Happiness

In order to get a handle on this question — to have some sense of where we are now, and where we might be going — it helps to appreciate where we have been. To do that involves coming to terms with the past, and particularly with a dramatic revolution in human expectations carried out in western culture since the second half of the seventeenth century.[4] The case of England is important in this regard. For although the recent British obsession with happiness may seem surprising to some, and even ironic, given that commentators have long associated the English character with a gloomy penchant for melancholy — the “English malady” as George Cheyne described it in a 1733 book of that name — in truth the “pursuit of happiness” in England has a long history.[5] Both the precise phrase and the reality it sought to describe have been recurrent features of English culture and politics since the mid-seventeenth century, when men and women first dared to dream that happiness might be something more than a millenarian dream. Whereas prior to that time people had tended to think of happiness as either the preserve of a virtuous minority or as an otherworldly reward for God’s elect, seventeenth-century English authors like John Locke presented happiness as something to which all human beings could aspire in this life. “The business of man is to be happy in this world,” Locke affirmed boldly, and in the succeeding century people throughout Europe and the Americas got busy, working in keeping with the new utilitarian current that swept the western world to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, bringing the greatest happiness to the greatest number.[6] For the first time in human history, large numbers of men and women were presented with the novel prospect that they might aspire to happiness in this life not as the consequence of extraordinary achievement or special favor, but simply as a result of being human.

That this was in many respects a liberating prospect — one that remains at the heart of our deepest-held humanitarian assumptions — should not be doubted, above all by Americans, whose forefathers embraced the new teaching on happiness with greater enthusiasm than any other people in the world. If the eighteenth century, according to contemporaries like the Milanese economist Pietro Verri, was the happiest epoch in the history of humanity, then America, its proponents argued, was the world’s happiest place. The freedom of its institutions and the general equality of its conditions had created “the greatest sum of happiness that perhaps any nation ever enjoyed,” exalted the noted architect Benjamin Latrobe not long after the adoption of the federal constitution.[7] In theory there was no limit to its growth. As Thomas Paine affirmed in 1776, borrowing the image of the tabula rasa from Locke, America “hath a blank sheet to write upon.” It could be “as happy as it pleases.”[8]

Freeing individuals from the fatalistic acceptance of the world as a vale of tears, this new attitude, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, turned ever greater numbers of men and women loose to pursue happiness wherever they might find it. To be sure, the right of pursuit — like the hope of attainment — was only gradually extended to all, with certain groups (most obviously African Americans) forced to struggle inordinately to secure a right that for too long was unjustly denied. And yet in both Europe and America the logic of the pursuit of happiness, like that of other universal rights, was inexorably in the direction of extension and expansion. Already in the 1840s, the British critic Thomas Carlyle was moved to observe (not without dismay) that “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.’”[9] Since that time, that expectation has only grown. Who among us today would deny that all should have the right to pursue happiness, even to find it?

Thus, one of the most striking developments in Western societies over the last several hundred years is the steady expansion of the hope and expectation of happiness in this life. Concomitant with this expansion has been the steady erosion of other ways of conceiving of life’s purpose and end. If other ways of doing so have not been entirely abandoned — there are those who still live for virtue, honor, one’s homeland, or family name — in a world that places a premium on good feeling and positive emotion, these other ends have nowhere near the power to channel and constrain our choices that they once did. The same may be said of religion — long considered the ultimate end — but which today, even in places like the United States, where religious observance remains strong, is more often than not treated as a means to a better and happier life. The American author of the 1767 True Pleasure, Cheerfulness, and Happiness, The Immediate Consequence of Religion was undoubtedly ahead of his time.[10] And yet only decades later, that famous observer of the young republic, Alexis de Tocqueville, found it difficult to be sure when listening to American preachers “whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this.”[11] Today, when not only Protestants, but Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims regularly offer their faiths in America as effective means to earthly happiness, it is more difficult still to discern religion’s main object. In a sense, they too serve the greatest of the modern gods, the most ultimate of ultimate ends: the god of good feeling, who now reigns here below.

So that is how we have come to our present place and horizon, seeing the world in perfect keeping with the injunction of a seventeenth-century Englishman, who once urged that “We must look through all things upon happiness, and through happiness upon all.”[12] The question, however, remains: What should we make of this spectacle?

Putting the Pursuit in Its Place

In the first place, we would probably do well to remind ourselves that worrying about happiness is a luxury — the privilege of peoples whose more pressing needs have been satisfied already. With longer lifespans and more abundant food supplies, greater security and more creature comforts than ever before, we are free to contemplate what those exposed to the miseries of famine, chaos, and disease can only dream.

On one level, then, we worry about happiness today with such single-minded focus because we can: Inhabitants of the world’s developed nations are the most fortunate creatures to have walked the face of the earth. And yet for all our focus on happiness it is by no means clear that we are happier as a result. Might we not even say that our contemporary concern is something of an inauspicious sign, belying a deep anxiety and doubt about the object of our pursuit? Does the fact that we worry so much about being happy suggest that we are not?

For some influential commentators, the answer to that question is not so much whether we are happy, but whether we are happy enough, and to that they answer resolutely “no.” Richard Layard, for example, one of the most influential proponents of using the new science of happiness to guide public policy, concedes that “In the West we have a society that is probably as happy as any there has ever been.”[13] And yet he and others point to survey data collected since the 1950s that asks citizens whether they are “very happy,” “pretty happy,” or “not too happy.” Essentially, those numbers have not changed, despite massive increases during the same period of Gross National Product (GNP). Layard and his colleagues regard this data as indicative of what the journalist Gregg Easterbrook calls the “progress paradox”: as people get richer, they don’t appear to get happier, or at least not very much after a certain minimum threshold has been crossed.[14] What Layard and his colleagues conclude from this is that governments promoting wealth-creation have their priorities wrong. Instead of working to promote GNP, they should strive instead to maximize Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Although that goal may at first sound appealing, there are, I believe, strong reasons for skepticism. In the first place, history is littered with attempts to establish what Layard’s colleague, the Nobel laureate in economics, Daniel Kahneman, has called “objective happiness.”[15] From Jeremy Bentham’s efforts to apply “arithmetical calculation to the elements of happiness” to Marx’s quest to secure “real happiness,” the dream of scientifically managing social welfare has enticed theorists and technocrats alike.[16] The fact that all have failed, of course, does not ipso facto mean that present and future attempts will similarly come to naught. But that knowledge should at the very least give us pause.

Moreover, as the economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer have argued, even if one does grant that psychologists and sociologists have made significant advances in measuring human happiness (as indeed they have), it does not follow that governments should be charged with tracking and securing it for the people.[17] Not only would an aggregate gross national happiness indicator be especially susceptible to government manipulation and citizen distortion — thereby calling into question its practical feasibility — but the very idea of a single social welfare function tends to disregard the democratic process, reducing individual sovereignty to self-reports of one’s well-being. Though in many respects enthusiastic about the new happiness research, Frey and Stutzer conclude that individuals and intermediary associations — not governments — are the best agents to put its findings to work.

Finally, to reason from the apparent stagnancy of self-reported happiness data to the conclusion that governments should shift their priorities from wealth-creation to happiness-creation is to ignore the simple fact that increased wealth may — and most certainly does — bring all sorts of other benefits regardless of its effect on subjective well-being. The fact that our diets and healthcare are such that we live, on average, decades longer than men and women at the beginning of the twentieth century; that travel to most places in the world is now widely accessible and affordable; that the world’s literature, film, and art are but a mouse-click away; that the average inhabitant of a developed nation has more wealth and possibilities at his or her disposal than many of history’s mightiest kings — none of these or countless other benefits of expanded GNP may actually boost our self-reported happiness. I am perfectly prepared to grant that they do not. But then, happiness researchers claim, neither does having children.[18] Should we stop producing offspring because they don’t increase our happiness? Clearly, to see the world only in terms of happiness is to see through a narrow lens.

Such arguments could be developed at greater length — as indeed I have tried, in part, to do elsewhere.[19] But here let me draw attention to another fact: that the “progress paradox” is only a paradox if one assumes that human beings should be getting happier all the time. That assumption, admittedly, was shared by Paine and Bentham and many others in the eighteenth century. It follows naturally enough from the revolution in human expectations discussed above. But whether it is a sound assumption is by no means clear. Evolutionary psychologists, for example, extrapolating from the theories of Darwin, point out that human beings have a tendency to adapt quickly to pleasures at hand. To be too happy for too long, apparently, is not an effective adaptive trait. Better to be a little bit anxious — a little bit unhappy — much of the time, so that we are motivated to continue our pursuits. The point being that it is by no means clear that humans as a species have a natural capacity for ever-rising levels of happiness. Might there not be a limit to how happy human beings can reasonably become?

To speak in this way of natural limits is to argue, in effect, against pursuing happiness too hard. That may sound like strange advice to American ears, and yet it is counsel that close observers of American society have felt moved to offer before. Even Thomas Jefferson understood that “perfect happiness … was never intended by the Deity to be the lot of one of his creatures.” John Adams, for his part, observed in his youth that if we sit down late in life to “make an estimate in our minds of the happiness we have enjoyed, and the misery we have suffered” we shall find that “the overbalance of happiness is quite inconsiderable.” We shall learn, he cautions, that “we have been, through the greatest part of our lives, pursuing shadows.”[20] Tocqueville stumbled upon a similar thought in Democracy in America, noting of the inhabitants of the United States that “No one could work harder to be happy.” The American, he observed, will continually change paths “for fear of missing the shortest cut leading to happiness.” Finally, though, “Death steps in … and stops him before he has grown tired of this futile pursuit of that complete felicity which always escapes him.” And that, Tocqueville concluded, in reference to America’s related quest for an ever-elusive equality, was “the reason for the strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance, and of that disgust with life sometimes gripping them in calm and easy circumstances.”[21]

Perceptive observers of American society, then, have cautioned from the outset about the dangers of pursuing too much. Perceptive observers of happiness have also arrived at similar conclusions. As Tocqueville’s contemporary and friend, John Stuart Mill, realized, “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life.”[22] Mill, a man who devoted much of his energy to the pursuit of happiness in democratic societies, was speaking in this case of individual lives. But his insight applies equally well to societies as a whole. It is noteworthy that Mill’s tough-minded successor as a defender of liberty and democracy, George Orwell, essentially agreed. “Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness,” he cautioned in 1944.[23]

Orwell’s words are worth heeding today, as are those of that other great English dystopian writer of the twentieth century, Aldous Huxley. Indeed, whereas 1984 can now seem a somewhat dated, if no less masterful, reflection on the concerns of the Cold War, Huxley’s Brave New World remains very much on the horizon of our future. Its denizens live with unflinching “faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good,” consuming in abundance, indulging their desires without guilt or inhibition, distracting themselves with the virtual reality of films with simple plots and the cult of youth. Forgetting the past and all things unpleasant in an effort to minimize pain, they maximize pleasure with mood-enhancing drugs and genetic manipulation. Everybody in the Brave New World is “happy nowadays,” and yet the world is a nightmare.[24] We are, I trust, still very far from that. But what a shame it would be to dream only of happiness and then wake up in a world in which we are miserable.


[1] Stuart Jeffries, “Why happiness is overrated,” The Guardian, July 11, 2006.

[2] Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (London: Penguin, 2005), 147.

[3] Pascal Bruckner, L’Euphorie perpétuelle: essai sur le devoir de bonheur (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, 2000), 84.

[4] On the history of the idea of happiness in the West, and the “dramatic revolution” in human expectations, see my Happiness: A History (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006), esp. chs 3–4.

[5] George Cheyne, The English malady, or, A treatise of nervous diseases of all kinds, as spleen, vapours, lowness of spirits, hypochondriacal, and hysterical distempers, &c. (London: G. Strahan, 1733).

[6] Locke cited in Roy Porter, The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment (New York: Norton, 2000), 100.

[7] Latrobe cited in Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 295.

[8] Thomas Paine, “The Forester’s Letters—To the People” (1776), The Writings of Thomas Paine, ed., Moncure Daniel Conway, 4 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s and Sons, 1894), I:154.

[9] Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present, ed. Richard D. Altick (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1965), 155. The citation is drawn from the critical chap. 4 of Book 3, “Happy.”

[10] True Pleasure, Cheerfulness, and Happiness, The Immediate Consequence of Religion fully and concisely proved (Philadelphia: William and Thomas Bradford, 1767).

[11] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 vols., trans. George Lawrence and ed. J.P. Mayer (New York: Harper Perennial, 1988), 2:530

[12] Richard Holdsworth, The Peoples Happinesse. A Sermon Preached in St. Maries in Cambridge, Upon the 27 of March, being the day of His Majesties Happy Inauguration (Cambridge: Roger Daniel, 1642), 2.

[13] Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, 125.

[14] Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (New York: Random House, 2003). This apparent paradox of progress was first identified by the economist Richard Easterlin, and so if often referred to as the “Easterlin Paradox.”

[15] Daniel Kahneman, “Objective Happiness,” in Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, and Norbert Schwarz, eds., Well-Being and the Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999).

[16] On Bentham, see the discussion in Ross Harrison, Bentham (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), 138–141. The line from Marx is taken from his essay, the “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right: Introduction.” The German reads “Die Aufhebung der Religion als des illusorischen Glücks des Volkes is die Forderung seines wirklichen Glücks.”

[17] Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer, “Should we Maximize National Happiness?,” available on-line at….

[18] See the discussion in Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness (New York: Knopf, 2006), 220–222.

[19] See, for example, Darrin M. McMahon, “Be of Good Cheer—or Else,” the Wall Street Journal, January 26, 2005, and “The Market and the Pursuit of Happiness,” Society 43, no. 2, January/February 2006.

[20] Jefferson and Adams cited in Howard Mumford Jones, The Pursuit of Happiness (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1953), 15–16.

[21] Tocquville, Democracy in America, I: 243 and II: 536–538.

[22] John Stuart Mill, Autobiography , ed. John M. Robson (London: Penguin, 1989), 117.

[23] George Orwell, “Arthur Koestler” (1944), available online.

[24] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: Harper Perennial, 1989), 177, 91.

Darrin M. McMahon is the Ben Weider Associate Professor of History at Florida State University and author of Happiness: A History (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006).

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • Why Societies Should Pursue Happiness by Barry Schwartz

    Swarthmore College psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, argues that Darrin McMahon’s cautionary tale is based on the confusion of happiness with pleasure. For Schwartz happiness “rightly understood” is “authentic happiness” centered on the development of virtue and excellence. We should not be afraid to apply such a conception of happiness to policy, for “figuring out what does and does not bring happiness, or utility, might vastly improve the ability of national policies to increase welfare.” Schwartz suggests we will find that not only does happiness not rise in lockstep with wealth, but that happiness in fact begins to decrease at a certain level of affluence. Free-market capitalism, Schwartz argues, tends to turns us into “infantilized pleasure-seekers” not oriented toward authentic happiness. “No one is going to get rich in a society full of seekers of human excellence,” Schwartz says.

  • The Data Tell a Different Story by Ruut Veenhoven

    Ruut Veenhoven, editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies and director of the World Database of Happiness, argues that happiness levels are not stagnant, as McMahon maintained in his lead essay. Citing the most recent data, Veenhoven observes that levels of average happiness have increased over the past 30 years in the United States and the European Union, while the increase in the expected number of “Happy Life Years” is even more dramatic. “This increase in overall quality of life is unprecedented in human history,” Veenhoven writes. McMahon’s concerns about an overemphasis on happiness are misguided, Veenhoven argues. Far from making us complacent, happiness improves health, creativity, and citizenship. Though Denmark is the happiest country on record, Veenhoven notes that “this does not seem to have damaged the Danes.”

  • The Quest for a Scientific Politics of Happiness by Will Wilkinson

    In his reply to McMahon, Cato Unbound managing editor Will Wilkinson lays out three “enormous problems” for the “quest for a scientific politics of happiness.” First, happiness is just one value among many. Second, no one knows for sure what happiness is. Third, Wilkinson sets up a dilemma. On the one hand, if a scientific politics of happiness is understood as the active management of social welfare by political elites, then it pseudoscience. On the other hand, if it is understood as a science of social coordination, then the specific aim of happiness becomes secondary to the requirements of effective coordination. This “institutionalist” conception of a scientific politics of happiness can overcome the problems of pluralism and definition, Wilkinson argues, but at the price of losing focus on the preeminent value of happiness.

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