What is happiness, anyway? In this slim volume, the topic is covered not as a self-help writer would — 10 steps to having a happier life! — but rather in five linked essays, each considering aspects of happiness, from social to sexual. Author David Malouf begins by consulting Montaigne, the great French thinker whose essay on solitude argues that the greatest thing in life is “to know how to belong to yourself.”
Of course, all the self-knowledge in the world won’t make you happy if you are a slave, or are dying of tuberculosis, or have buried most of your babies. And the reverse is also true; living in a modern, affluent society is no guarantee of anybody feeling good about life, which leads to Malouf’s central question: “how is it, when the chief sources of human unhappiness, of misery and wretchedness, have largely been removed from our lives . . . that happiness still eludes so many of us?”
Malouf, an Australian, blames (and credits) an American example. Thomas Jefferson, he argues, may have written “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” more out of rhetorical enthusiasm than with an eye toward reframing a government’s responsibility for its citizens’ emotional health, but Malouf calls the phrase “the real time-bomb in the Declaration” for its radical suggestion that happiness would be among the rewards a new country could grant, could even become, in our secular state, a kind of religion. Happiness was offered as heaven’s reward to the framers’ European ancestors, but in their new nation, it existed in the here and now, if only one pursued it.
Yet pursuit itself, which may be built into the human condition, can impede happiness, at least of the contented sort Jefferson and other 18th-century philosophers favored. In one characteristically rich and thoughtful chapter, Malouf weaves together a Platonic creation tale (wherein Prometheus steals technical knowledge from the gods because human beings have been unfairly left defenseless after all the animals have been granted fangs, claws, and fur), a 17th-century devotional poem in which God grants man every single gift but that of rest, and the French philosopher Condorcet’s vision of endless forward progress. If we agree with Condorcet that mankind is capable of near-limitless improvement, perhaps we are evolving to find happiness in the state of being perpetually busy — Montaigne’s silent solitude strikes us as scary in a world of noisy intimacy. And yet we are not quite there, are we? The way we live now, Malouf argues, keeps us “in a state of permanent low-level anxiety broken only by outbreaks of alarm.”
Happiness is not the same thing for everyone. It’s “singular; each case speaks only for itself.” Individual temperament plays a large role, as do expectations. Still, Malouf suggests that while technological advances have mostly eliminated many causes of unhappiness (fatal childhood diseases, water-borne epidemics), it has ushered in other, less obvious maladies.
As human understanding has increased, we now know we inhabit not the familiar, sustaining earth of our ancestors, but instead a spinning planet in a nearly infinite, unknowable universe. We no longer contemplate the mysteries of the mind, not when we have a now-mappable brain to analyze. Where once we knew we could face good or bad luck at the hands of fate, or the gods, we now perceive our fortunes to be at the mercy of impersonal, unknowable forces like the economy or the government. Modern life gives as it takes away, Malouf seems to suggest — how to find happiness in that equation is a useful riddle for midwinter meditation.