Peter Stearns on “The History of Happiness”


Here is an excerpt from an article written by Peter N. Stearns for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Artwork: Yue Minjun, The Massacre at Chios, 2001, Oil on Canvas, 300 X 220 cm

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A modern Russian adage holds that “a person who smiles a lot is either a fool or an American.” It’s true that when McDonald’s arrived in Russia, in 1990, one of its first tasks was to train clerks to seem cheerful. I’ve spent time since with Russian friends, discussing cultural rules on showing happiness, agreeing that differences remain.

The point here is not to disparage Russians. Most East Asian cultures also have lower happiness expectations than Americans are accustomed to. Some Latin American cultures tend in the other direction. The point is that cultural variations on happiness are considerable, contributing to the findings of international happiness polls that dot the contemporary public opinion landscape.

Moreover, attitudes toward happiness don’t just vary; they change. Danes, the current polls suggest, are no longer so melancholy. Exploring the nature of such change not only illuminates our own context for happiness but also allows us to assess its advantages and downsides. Without historical perspective, American expectations seem so normal and so natural that they’re difficult to evaluate.

The fact is that the commitment to happiness in Western culture is relatively modern. Until the 18th century, Western standards encouraged, if anything, a slightly saddened approach to life, with facial expressions to match. As one dour Protestant put it, God would encourage a person who “allowed no joy or pleasure, but a kind of melancholic demeanor and austerity.” This does not mean people were actually unhappy—we simply cannot know that, because cultural standards and personal temperament interact in complicated ways. But there is no question that many people felt obliged to apologize for the moments of happiness they did encounter. Sinful humanity had best display a somewhat sorrowful humility.

This changed dramatically with the 18th century and the values of the Enlightenment. Alexander Pope declaimed, “Oh happiness! our being’s end and aim!” while one John Byrom urged that “it was the best thing one could do to be always cheerful…and not suffer any sullenness.” The charge here was double-edged and has remained so. On the one hand, it was now perfectly legitimate to seek happiness. On the other, not being happy, or at least not seeming to be, was a problem to be avoided. Ordinary people began writing about their interest “in enjoying happiness and independence.” Disasters, such as the brutal yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793, produced recommendations to the survivors to keep up their spirits and avoid excessive grief.

The list of historians working on happiness is not long, but those who’ve tackled some aspect of the subject generally agree: At the level of rhetoric, at least, a significant shift occurred in Western culture around 250 years ago.

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The happiness imperative certainly hinders exploration of the gray areas of modern experience, and its compulsory quality can misfire. Here are the two clearest downsides.

First, although the most obvious drawback of the emphasis on happiness involves the gaps with re­ality that can, paradoxically, create their own discontents, there’s also the risk that people will fail to explore reasons for dissatisfaction because of pressure to exhibit good cheer. We may miss opportunities to improve situations, for example in work settings, because we assume that problems result from personality and not from more-objective conditions. Those risks suggest the need to cut through the pervasive happiness rhetoric at certain points.

Second, and at least as important, a culture saturated with happiness makes it difficult for people to deal with sadness, in themselves and others. A sad child is a comment on the parents—the source of that modern scourge, the “unhappy childhood.” But what of children who are sad or who go through periods of sadness? What are their acceptable outlets? The same applies to adults. We know that at least a quarter of depression diagnoses are mistakes, confusions of normal sadness with a pathological state. Indeed, some depression may result from the difficulty of manifesting a more modest dose of sadness, making it “easier” to drift into outright illness. Every cultural system has drawbacks to go with the advantages that facilitated its adoption in the first place. Seeing a culture as the product of historical change is an invitation to step back, assess, and then consider further change. We may not wish to alter the happiness culture that modern history has bequeathed us; its considerable problems may be outweighed by the pleasure of having cheerful artifacts and smiling faces around us. But we can at least consider the possibility of modification. In our happiness culture there might yet be, after a couple of centuries of acceleration, room for improvement.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Peter N. Stearns is the provost and a professor of history at George Mason University.

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