American Stigmata

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
—The Declaration of Independence

They seldom looked happy. They passed one another without a word in the elevator, like silent shades in hell, hell-bent on their next look from a handsome stranger. Their next rush from a popper. The next song that turned their bones to jelly and left them all on the dance floor with heads back, eyes nearly closed, in the ecstasy of saints receiving the stigmata.
—Andrew Holleran, Dancer from the Dance



Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), in his Democracy in America, observed 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.” So notes an insightful article by Darrin M. McMaho, author of the book Happiness: A History.

We Americans are obsessed with happiness. Our founding document enshrines our unalienable, God-given right to pursue it. The quest is fundamental to our national DNA. Funny thing, though, the more we chase it, the more time and attention we devote to it, the more we accumulate the ornaments of happiness, the less we seem to have of it. Go figure.

The phrase “pursuit of happiness” was actually coined by Dr. Samuel Johnson (one of my favorite cultural curmudgeons) in his philosophical romance Rasselas (1759) which concerns a young man traveling in the company of an honored teacher, encountering and examining human suffering in an attempt to determine the root of happiness. The question Rasselas confronts is whether or not humanity is essentially capable of attaining it. The conclusion of the book suggests Johnson’s opinion: Of those wishes that they had formed they well knew that none could be obtained. For Johnson, at least, the pursuit of happiness is doomed to failure.

George Orwell, essentially agreed. “Men can only be happy,” he wrote, “when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.” Say what? Happiness cannot be possessed or won. It is a quality of response, not an object to be pursued—and it is most certainly not a divinely entitled state of affairs, something American Christians, especially, have failed to grasp.

It’s interesting how little the Bible mentions happiness, and even when it does it’s a contingent, qualified thing. When times are good be happy, says the writer of Ecclesiastes; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Sure, being happy is great, but that’s not the point, not the point at all. Happiness reveals very little about the true quality of a life lived. Was Jesus happy? Contemporary versions of him seem to assume so. Yet only once is Jesus characterized as being “full of joy,” and never as being happy. The prophet Isaiah describes the Son of Man as “a man of sorrows.” Can this be the same Creator to whom Jefferson refers in his political masterpiece?

I am not against happiness. (In fact, I’m quite happy when I’m happy.) I do not, however, recognize happiness as a legitimate object of pursuit for mankind in general or Christians in particular. We Christians should know better. Our consuming chase for personal happiness leaves little time for the “lesser” pursuits of righteousness, faith, love, peace, and justice. We aren’t called to be happy; we are called to follow Christ. Sometimes that will make us happy; sometimes it will hurt like hell.

But we Americans believe in Thomas Jefferson. We believe in the Gospel of our independence. We believe that life is a right, that freedom is owed us. We believe that happiness should be ours—is almost in our grasp. It is our Story. It is our beautiful bleeding wound.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

Postscript: I just stumbled upon a great entry in the Los Angeles Times titled The Miracle of Melancholia: We’re a nation obsessed with being happy, but sometimes feeling bad can do you some good.


  1. Crap! We’re leaving at the end of the month for Disney World, the “Happiest” Place On Earth. Just when I thought I had it all figured out you throw this at me!
    So what am I to do while in Walt’s World?
    Maybe I’ll ride Thunder Mountain multiple times until I hurl on everybody, I will be happy dang ya!

  2. What are you to do at Disney World? If you’re really spiritual, you’ll have a miserable time. But hurling on everybody else and making THEM miserable is an acceptable alternative.

  3. Could happiness be materialism’s (speaking of the philosophy, not the attachment to things) version of joy? That would certainly follow for Disney World, as Walt was apparently a philosophical materialist.

    But, what I really want to know is this: Is the happiest place on Earth Disney World, or Disneyland? Can the happiest place on Earth exist concurrently in different locations? Is happiness perhaps a quantum phenomenon?

    Happiness is not, however, everyone’s goal. Personally, I just want peace and quiet – but, that may turn out to be the same thing. And in that same vein, is perhaps happiness just the American word for whatever it is that other philosophies seek?

  4. One problem with making happiness the object of the human quest is that we may not recognize when we are actually happy. Maybe we need more Zen and less Walt.

  5. The happiest place on earth is EuroDisney. They serve wine. And beer.

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