It Was the Best of Times
From the agoras of Athens, to our vision of the pearly gates, to Independence Hall, the annals of history are colored by an omnipresent search for human happiness. (Illustration: Dennis Lan for USC Dornsife Magazine.)

It Was the Best of Times

History has no laugh track, so how do we measure our changing conceptions of happiness through the ages? [10 min read]
ByStephen Koenig

It seems like every text message now arrives with an emoji. It’s often that grinning yellow face — tilting to and fro, dribbling tears of glee. Could this interminable cheerfulness be genuine? If so many of our friends and relatives were truly rolling on the floor, laughing out loud at any benign amusement, we’d expect some sort of protocol from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But what if this is the happiest time in history? At face value, it sure seems that way. Sculptural masterpieces, such as the Venus de Milo, cast a stoic gaze on the world. President George Washington’s pokerfaced portraits suggest a practiced austerity. And Grant Wood’s famous painting, American Gothic, depicts common rural folks in the early 20th century, a pitchfork-wielding farmer and his daughter looking happy as vampires in the sunlight.    

Of course, these faces don’t tell the whole story. Historical research provides context through which we can better understand happiness across place and time. Yet, generalizations are difficult when the notion eludes clear definition. From ancient Greece to modern America, philosophers, raconteurs and self-help “experts” have tried to pin down the essence of happiness. C.S. Lewis said it’s God; Karl Marx said it’s the abolition of religion. Friedrich Nietzsche said it’s desire; Carl Sandberg said it’s admiring without desiring. Walt Disney said it’s a state of mind; Buddha said it’s the path and Charles Schultz said it’s a warm puppy. And then there’s Genghis Kahn — he said it’s “to scatter your enemy and drive him before you.” No doubt, it’s complicated.

Classical Conditioning

“Call no man happy until he is dead.” Ancient Greek statesman and antiquity’s Oscar the Grouch, Solon had good reason to be pessimistic. The Greeks were constantly at war. Day-to-day pursuits of personal fulfillment were judiciously supplanted by an existential fixation: Don’t get speared

By the 4th century B.C., Athens had lost more than half its population, and people had soured on the perpetual fray. Out of centuries of bloodshed arose a movement toward peace, democracy and contemplation.

“Aristotle introduces the idea of intentionality,” said Susan Lape, professor of classics at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “He posited that there was a purpose to life, something we seek for its own sake. But, if we do not know what that purpose is, we will miss it. The purpose, he contends, is happiness.”

The result is eudaimonia, which roughly translates to “human flourishing.” Different from happiness as pleasure or an externally validated status, flourishing, for Aristotle, is achieved by living a life of virtue in pursuit of human excellence. 

“Aristotle believed we need to prioritize our role as social beings as opposed to just human beings,” Lape said. “This included performing acts of reciprocity, altruism, temperance and valuing your friend as yourself.”

A similar idea is championed by today’s peppy cohort of social media influencers imploring you to “be your best self.” Whether you’re pulling a crash victim from a flaming car or paying for your friend’s latte, eudaimonia is a habit of mind that chooses the virtuous act in any given moment.

Knockin On Heavens Door

If our understanding of happiness in antiquity is mostly informed by seminal texts, we have to dig a little deeper to explore ideas of well-being in the Middle Ages, an era characterized by a dearth of written records. As a result, we tend to fall back on pop culture’s stock characterization of the period — a millennium of incessant jousting, plague and boats careening off the edge of the planet.

But it wasn’t all a Monty Python quest. Happiness in the Middle Ages was found in spiritual activities that stamped one’s ticket to paradise. Pious sacrifice, according to religious leaders, was a condition for entry into an exclusive heaven. And because the Roman Catholic Church pulled the levers of power throughout Europe, sacrifice was built into society.

“There are all these rules laid out by clergymen,” says USC Dornsife postdoctoral scholar Kathryn Dickason. A member of USC Dornsife’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities, her expertise is medieval culture. “You can have your moments of bliss, but you have to follow certain regulations.” 

Thus, some kinds of speech, dancing, food and physical intimacy fell under the auspices of religious canon law.

Living under so many constraints may seem counterintuitive to happiness, but if heaven were anything like the way it’s portrayed in the art and culture of medieval times, it was a small price to pay. 

“Heaven is like one big party,” said Dickason. “There’s dancing, music, and you’re in close proximity to God.”

Indeed, stars, orbs and movement common in artwork of the Middle Ages give the promised land a decidedly disco vibe. For example, Sandro Botticelli’s The Mystical Nativity heralds the birth of Christ, as 12 angels perform a choreographed whirl beneath a goldfish-orange aperture in the sky.

This ethereal heaven was further illustrated by medieval men and women deemed mystics who entered a state of jubilus — a transcendent rhapsody of joy, triggering sensory overload. Visions often placed mystics in the cosmic presence of Christ or the Virgin Mary. Many of these narratives take a tactile — even erotic — turn fit for paperback romance novels. “They get really, you know,  pretty wild,” said Dickason.

Happiness in the Middle Ages was largely divorced from mortal life and was focused instead on anticipation of the promised land. Where many people today consider death an endpoint, Dickason says that people in the Middle Ages considered death to be the beginning of a new and better state of being. 

“Character and discipline for the long haul may be making a comeback against personality.”

You Just Have to Own It

As the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance and its progeny, the Enlightenment, exploration of the seas and the study of nature gave humans new understanding of the world, once thought comprehensible only to the divine. America’s founding fathers, products of the Enlightenment, drew on much of this knowledge and the prevailing ethos that man controls his own destiny when designing their new republic.

This was underscored in the inalienable rights spelled out in the Declaration of Independence: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” While the first two had long been held as fundamental, the pursuit of happiness was both an ambiguous and a novel idea. Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the document in 1776, provided no definitive context for what composes this patriotic quest.

Better treatments for disease and an emphasis on self-reliance meant that people were no longer destined to suffer through life. With more opportunities for leisure and access to creature comforts, seeking pleasure was no longer frowned upon. Was Jefferson, then, referring to a hedonic happiness? Was he promoting the rags-to-riches story central to the American Dream. 

“It’s not about being happy,” says Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities and the Linda and Harlan Martens Director of the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute Peter Mancall. “It’s about the right to property — land, material possessions and, unfortunately, slaves.” 

In colonial times, only those who owned land were allowed to vote. With this in mind, we can interpret the pursuit of happiness as the equal capacity for (almost exclusively white, male) landowners to have a finger in the pie of politics. Rather than an individual right to seek pleasure, it establishes this pursuit as participation in democracy.

Given the century and a half of relative success that people in the colonies had found prior to the American Revolution, it becomes clear why this notion would be a popular draw. Not only did the colonists have unprecedented freedom, research indicates that free white people were among the wealthiest per capita in the history of the world, though we should remember that their wealth came at the expense of enslaved people and Native Americans, says Mancall, professor of history and anthropology, at USC Dornsife. Quality homes, fashionable clothing and books were accessible to many. And it’s hard to ignore one particularly abundant recourse for colonial woes: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” quipped Benjamin Franklin.

While Supplies Last

Fast forwarding to the 20th century highlights two converging cultural transformations that redirect our sense of human happiness. First, when the Industrial Revolution took people out of the fields, there was a shift in lifestyle — fewer producers and more consumers. While some think the democratized availability of goods and conveniences put the conception of a happy or fulfilling life up for sale, USC Dornsife Professor of Art History and History Vanessa Schwartz says that consumerism isn’t always about immediate satisfaction. “It is about both today and the promise of tomorrow, and it can even help us rewrite the past,” she says.  

Schwartz, who directs USC Dornsife’s Visual Studies Research Institute, notes the proliferation of magazines in the early 20th century circulating aspirational images and ideas that prompted not only a desire for instantaneous happiness but a brighter future. She contends that certain photographs and promotional imagery filled an important role in making the bombardment of new technology and experiences familiar and pleasurable rather than frightening. Schwartz’s forthcoming book, Jet Age Aesthestic (Yale University Press) explores the way that travel marketing and imagery in the early jet age, for example, made “the novel experience of hurtling through the atmosphere in a metal tube seem like one of the most glamorous ways to live.”

Second, the idea of “personality” took on new life as the key to happiness, for religious and secular Americans alike. Opening the professions to women and moving the center of life outside the home empowered self-discovery and the cultivation of unique personalities.

“The fluid smile and the sunny disposition,” says USC Dornsife’s Richard Fox, professor of history, “chipped away at the stolid ideal of ‘character.’ Women joined men in scrambling for happiness through beaming self-assertion.” 

Following America’s collective bonding during World War II, the increasing choices available — both in products and values — sparked the rise of individualism. Satisfaction was no longer a house, three kids and a dog. It was the success reflected in a Rolex watch or, more recently, the health consciousness reflected in a Bowflex home gym. As people were finding fulfillment by developing their unique personality, they were adopting certain aspects of consumer culture to express themselves. Personal branding had begun. 

And then came the rise of social media. Happiness, today, has become more theatre than pursuit.  Instead of developing one’s personality, people develop a highlight reel of the most enviable slices of their lives.

On the surface it may seem like incessant navel-gazing, yet it’s often the opposite — a highly curated performance for an external audience. It’s a coping mechanism for the new kind of status anxiety that percolates within a hyper-connected culture competing for attention; one that is not just communicating “look at me,” but also “here’s what I can offer you.”

But what isn’t captured in these depictions are the calls to action that might have otherwise gone unanswered. Major challenges in the world are inspiring the next generation to look for happiness through collective and intentional endeavors.

“I’m struck by how many students today are fired up by the idea of pursuing public goals in addition to private ones,” says Fox. “Yes, they want careers. But climate change, gun violence and inequality have given them pause. Character and discipline for the long haul may be making a comeback against personality.”

Could it be that we are redefining eudaimonia for our hyper-connected world? Whereas the virtues that Aristotle suggested enable individuals to flourish in each moment, flourishing in the 21st century might be best accomplished by collaboration. If we accept this idea of modern happiness, then complex social problems could be solved, not by asking, “am I making the most of my talent in this moment?” but rather by demanding, “are we making the most of our talents in this moment?”

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine’s Fall 2019/Winter 2020 issue >>