Sentimentality and the Pursuit of Happiness

All Americans know that the pursuit of happiness, like life and liberty, is an “unalienable right”. The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, edited by Benjamin Franklin and famously approved by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, says so.

The U.S. history they are taught as schoolchildren persuading them that the Declaration sprang full-blown direct from the genius of Jefferson, what most Americans do not understand, especially “conservatives” who want to imagine there was something Christian about the republic’s founding, is that the document’s guiding ideas and much of its language were lifted from the English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke (1632-1714), whose thought as much as anyone’s gave rise to the philosophy (and hence the politics) of liberalism. This was recognized by delegates to the Continental Congress and acknowledged by Jefferson at the time.

Of course Jefferson did not copy Locke word-for-word. Writers “borrowing” from other writers seldom are as blatantly plagiarist as that. Thus where Locke had written “life, liberty, and property,” Jefferson wrote “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”. However, delegates to the Continental Congress, most of them as influenced by Locke as was Jefferson (whether or not they actually read him) had “property” in mind when they voted approval of the Declaration.

That sense of the phrase is completely lost today. As far as that goes, judging from their behavior, the notion of pursuit has collapsed into that of attainment for most Americans. They act as if they have a “right” by birth not simply to seek happiness, but to have it now, and not happiness in the lofty Aristotelian understanding of it inherited by Christians after St. Thomas Aquinas baptized the philosophy of the great Greek. That is happiness understood as the pleasure which arises from activity in accordance with virtue, of feeling one’s powers operate at a high level. Happiness like that comes close to being joy or even ecstasy and when it is that intense can have a painful edge, painful if only because we know even as we experience it that it is a “high” we shall not be able to sustain for long – virtue in the ancient sense involving as it does excellence, which is always difficult and rare.

If not that kind, what is the happiness desired by most Americans – all, really, apart from the remaining Christians – and whose absence, however fleeting, will be as disturbing to them as the deprivation of any of their other presumed “rights”? The word that comes most readily to mind for describing it is contentedness. It is the emotional equivalent of being comfortable physically. In fact, it is so shallow as a feeling it depends on that comfort. Turn off his air-conditioning, make him walk instead of ride in a car, force him to sit in an unpadded chair or tell him he cannot take a hot shower for three days, and you will have an unhappy American.

Air-conditioners, cars, chairs, hot showers – these are all things. That things are integral to our happiness is what makes us a nation of consumers. That consumption rather than production has become the basis of the national economy would be evil enough from a social and political point of view. However, such materialism also leads to profoundly immoral, if perfectly legal, acts, as when a married couple will kill a preborn baby by abortion because his birth could jeopardize their acquisition of a new gas-saving vehicle, a time-share at the beach, the latest wrinkle in electronic home-entertainment technology or some other thing they feel necessary to their happiness. In other words, their conviction that they have a “right” to happiness is so certain, they will go so far as to deny to their own offspring that other “unalienable” one, life itself.

If the generality of Americans will not easily abide physical discomfort, neither can they bear pain in their emotional life. We could simply observe on this score that they cannot because the pain, like physical discomfort, would interfere with their happiness, with their being content, but that is too obvious to merit noting – as also that it is why happiness as understood by Aristotle and Christians since St. Thomas is not attractive to them. We could also observe, if we were speaking of art and culture, that out of pain and its sister feelings of grief and sorrow, or any emotional suffering, or simply the melancholic state, some of the world’s greatest poetry, music and painting have been produced, but Americans are notoriously indifferent to the arts, so why bother? However, there is a consequence of the “pursuit of happiness” as the end-all, be-all of life that interests us. That is because it is one of the defining traits of our character as a people, regardless of ethnic background and though it usually goes unacknowledged.

Despite feminism’s imperatives, the traits that still get celebrated are masculine: rugged, individualistic, go-getting, capable (as in “American know-how”). There is this other one, however. It is born of the feeling we are likely to have, however determined we are to be happy, of a certain incompleteness, of feeling “unfulfilled” as the expression goes, if happy is all we are. The Christian recognizes that the feeling arises from the soul’s yearnings for a life beyond the one we have on earth and all it can offer, including happiness. To wit, life in Heaven. It is natural to yearn for Heaven, as for home when we are far from it. Of course Heaven is conceived nowadays by most, including many who call themselves Christian, as scarcely more than a place – perhaps a pleasant garden – where their contentedness can never be disrupted.

In any event, yearning for something beyond happiness, but unwilling to expose themselves to the possibility of much else, Americans become sentimental, especially when it comes to emotions that are strong when truly felt: love, sorrow, grief, anything resembling the pain they cannot bear, but also exaltation of the sort a hero might feel even in sacrifice. They wind up experiencing these emotions much diluted or vicariously, as maybe by watching a movie on the Lifetime Channel or hailing as heroic any cop, fireman or soldier in Iraq simply doing his job.

What needs to be grasped here is that it is wrong to think, as many do, that sentimentality consists of extreme emotion. In truth, the sentimentalist suffers from an absence of emotion. Instead of to the depth of his heart, he feels with his fingertips. He does not feel strongly enough for his emotion to propel him into action or truly to commit himself to anything. He will be in love, but not get around to proposing, or if he does will quit the marriage half the time (the national divorce rate is fifty percent). He may be sorrowful over an action he has performed or about some condition of society, but not enough to reform himself or do what he can to change the condition. A couple may grieve over having to put down a pet, but will congratulate themselves that thanks to the measures they take to prevent life (otherwise they might have “too many” children) they can take a vacation in Hawaii. What it all comes to is this: the pursuit of happiness has made us Americans, as a people, a nation of sentimentalists (as well as consumers).

Being emotionally shallow in that way can have frightful repercussions. For instance, we are accustomed to public figures, wrapping themselves in the flag, voicing sorrow over the 4,100 American military who have died in Iraq, but when did you last hear reference to the 100,000-120,000 Iraqi civilians killed since the U.S. invaded their country? The number means nothing to us. Our feelings don’t extend that far.

There will be other repercussions in the future. Think in terms of historical accomplishments. Think, for example, of the Spanish. There were plunderers among the conquistadores, but the lasting achievement of the Spanish was the spread of Christian civilization throughout the world, including to both continents of our Hemisphere. For what will today’s U.S. be remembered? For what else but planting, not the Cross, but a Wal-Mart and McDonald’s on every shore?

Perhaps our sentimentality is seen no more strikingly these days than in the way we continue to wallow in 9/11 seven years later. Yes, the events of 9/11 caused a great deal of genuine fear at the time, and that fear is still apparently felt by many even if they live nowhere near a likely terrorist target. It remains, few of us knew anyone killed on 9/11, we personally witnessed none of the horrors except through the medium of television, life for most was soon back to what it was except for the increased security measures at airports. It was all very remote from our personal lives. Yet we continue to wallow. Why? It is because as remote as we were from the actual events (indeed, because we were remote) they provided the most intense emotional experience the majority of Americans have had, and rerunning all of it in their heads periodically gives them the opportunity to feel emotions like grief and sorrow at no real personal cost, not in terms of recalling any loss of their own, not in terms of it disturbing their general contentedness. This is why sentiment is aptly described as unearned emotion. You get to feel the grief and sorrow without having to pay a price, something like feeling the thrill of “danger” on a Disneyland ride where there is no real risk or having a “wilderness experience” in the controlled environment of a national park campsite.

Real happiness – not the bliss of Heaven but happiness in this world that is somewhat more than mere contentedness – also has to be earned. Three things are required for it: a clear conscience; to be doing something with your life worth a man’s (or a woman’s) doing; to be loved or appreciated. Having a clear conscience will require at least as much effort as it takes to get to the nearest confessional, and maybe some action beyond the penance prescribed there. To be doing something worthwhile can be problematic if half your waking time has to be spent in front of a computer in an office cubicle, but that means care must be taken – an effort must be made – to find ways besides “relaxation” to spend one’s remaining time. And nobody will be loved or appreciated who does not make the effort to get outside his self and beyond his own happiness to show some love and appreciation to others.

Though the self-indulgent sentimentalist will enjoy his periodic shot of synthetic emotion, his little taste of someone else’s loss or frisson of an emotion other than content, no sane person (much less one who is insane) will set out deliberately to be miserable. However, if mere contentedness is all that is desired, it requires little effort – none to speak of. Simply close your eyes and smile. If you want to feel really good, laugh. You don’t need to think of anything funny. Just laugh. Keep it up for half a minute and you’ll wonder afterward why anybody would think happiness so elusive he needs to spend his life in its pursuit. The point is the pursuit of happiness as an end will lead nowhere except to sentimentality and a sentimental life. That is to speak of life in this world. Getting to the one in Heaven requires that this life be filled with stronger stuff. In a word, there are more important things to do in life than trying to be happy, but if that is all to which somebody, or an entire people, aspires and it leaves him unfulfilled and the people without a high historical destiny, what they get will be exactly what they deserve.