I just wanted to highlight and praise this essay by Pascal Bruckner in the most recent issue of City Journal. Bruckner is relentlessly interesting -- his Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism was a very searching study of the origins and discontents of multiculturalism, which caused no small controversy in Europe. His most recent book, of which this essay is a redux, Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to be Happy, is similarly structured: It begins with an intellectual genealogy, and ends with a critique. The subject this time is our society’s move away from understanding morality as denial, restraint, and self-sacrifice, and toward a severe ethic of self-fulfillment, health, and happiness.
He finds the origin in two 1960s trends:
The first was a shift in the nature of capitalism, which had long revolved around production and the deferral of gratification, but now focused on making us all good consumers. Working no longer sufficed; buying was also necessary for the industrial machine to run at full capacity. To make this shift possible, an ingenious invention had appeared not long before, first in America in the 1930s and then in Europe in the 1950s: credit…
The second shift was the rise of individualism. Since nothing opposed our fulfillment any longer—neither church nor party nor social class—we became solely responsible for what happened to us. It proved an awesome burden: if I don’t feel happy, I can blame no one but myself. So it was no surprise that a vast number of fulfillment industries arose, ranging from cosmetic surgery to diet pills to innumerable styles of therapy, all promising reconciliation with ourselves and full realization of our potential. “Become your own best friend, learn self-esteem, think positive, dare to live in harmony,” we were told by so many self-help books…
But Bruckner has a more tragic vision of the world. Happiness is attained obliquely, in the pursuit of other goals. It is not under our direct power. So,
However well behaved we are, our bodies continue to betray us. Age leaves its mark, illness finds us one way or another, and pleasures have their way with us, following a rhythm that has nothing to do with our vigilance or our resolution.
…we are probably the first society in history to make people unhappy for not being happy.
I can’t add anything to this exquisite essay. I’ll just highlight a point that might engender controversy among conservatives. Bruckner writes:
After the American and French Revolutions (the first of which inscribed the pursuit of happiness in its founding document), the right to a decent life and the privileged status of pleasure became the order of the day for progressive movements across Europe.
So, while writing at length about our moral impoverishment in a way that appeals to conservatives, Bruckner says that one of the main sources of the problem is… the American founding. Bruckner does deliberately contrast the American Revolution’s “right” to happiness with the 1960s’ “duty” to happiness -- but the former is the latter’s origin. So the old question is raised again: What does it mean to be a traditionalist conservative in America, when America’s traditions are precisely anti-traditionalist individualism and exaltation of personal happiness?