When the Pursuit of Happiness Becomes the Flight from Pain

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Our Founders did not risk everything to build a culture that aims to risk nothing.

The American republic was founded for a people who increasingly do not exist. It was founded to facilitate a dynamic culture — against the backdrop of war, the ultimate risk — to guarantee not safety and comfort but hope and possibility. A founding generation stared the world’s greatest military power in the face and didn’t just rebel but articulated a spiritual and cultural purpose for a new nation and a new government. The government existed to protect the liberty of the people, and the people were to use that liberty to do something positive, to “pursue happiness.”

This was no call for hedonism, but — as Thomas Jefferson noted — a quest rooted in certain cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. John Locke, generations before, described the pursuit of happiness and took care to call it “true and solid happiness,” distinguishing it at length from instant gratification or the satisfaction of immediate desires. Without digressing too far into the philosophical weeds, it is safe to say that neither Locke nor Jefferson would recognize or endorse a pursuit of happiness disconnected from real and eternal virtues.

In other words, they would be appalled at what passes for the “pursuit of happiness” in stagnating states of America. This weekend I finished reading Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class, one of the most important reads of the new year. He comprehensively chronicles how Americans are making deliberate decisions on a mass scale that collectively add up to a culture that is avoiding risk, seeking comfort, and clustering together in like-minded communities.

Americans are less willing to move, to start new companies, or to live or work with people from different socioeconomic classes. We’re clustering with people of like mind, similar income, and the same race. It’s a devastating portrait of a nation that is losing its dynamism in favor of, essentially, “digging in.”

As I read Cowen — and compared his findings with other indispensable books about modern American culture (books like Robert Putnam’s Our Kids and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart), it became clear that the virtue and courage-dependent classical conception of “pursuit of happiness” is morphing into something more low and base, the flight from pain.

Consider the choices of America’s ascendant social classes, the people who tell their children not to play football, who can’t imagine a child choosing to join the infantry, who raise the snowflakes who dominate the academy, and who speak the language of trigger warnings and microaggressions. These are the masters of NIMBYism, living in the most expensive neighborhoods where the high cost of rent works better than any physical barrier to keep out the undesirables.

Consider how we relentlessly seek to prescribe treatment for the imperfections in our lives.

Consider how we relentlessly seek to prescribe treatment for the imperfections in our lives. Stress is treated with drugs. Sadness is treated with drugs. Pain is now the fifth vital sign, and its “management” is creating a class of addicts — people who’ve slipped entirely from the dynamic life and into an existence dominated alternately by the somnolence of the opioid “high” and the panic of opioid deprivation.

Consider how we marry. We’ve constructed a social and cultural system that encourages men and women to avoid risk through the “trial marriage” of cohabitation, then to bail quickly when marriage gets hard through no-fault divorce laws that make marriage vows less binding than refrigerator warranties. Are you in pain? Leave. Are you not fulfilled? Divorce.

Consider how we die. In spite of recent and worrying increases in homicides, the rate at which Americans kill each other is still at historic lows. Instead, we kill ourselves — destroying the body to ease the mind. The headlines are horrifying. “Americans Are Drinking Themselves to Death at Record Rates.” “The U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High.” “Drug Overdose Deaths Increased by 33-percent in Past 5 Years.” Drugs, alcohol, and suicide — each of these things represents the flight from physical, spiritual, and psychological pain. In staggering numbers Americans are responding to pain and loss with a sometimes slow and sometimes fast slide into oblivion.

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I can’t help wonder how much of this change is connected to the loss of faith, to the absence of the eternal perspective. Everything that matters is here, on this earth, and given the fragility of life is it not entirely rational to do all you reasonably can to make it as comfortable as it can be? In the absence of providential help, are our challenges not that much more insurmountable? So you fight to preserve what you have, and when you lose those things that matter most, hope is hard to find.

Moreover, technology has given us the illusion of control. Cowen notes the irony that the technology we once thought would make Americans more dynamic has in fact helped to cement us more firmly in place. We’re increasingly using it to build walls rather than expand horizons. After all, do we not enjoy life more when our friends, neighbors, entertainment, and news either bring us pleasure or reinforce our prejudice?

The reality is that the pursuit of ‘true and solid happiness’ often represents the hard and risky earthly path.

The reality is that the pursuit of “true and solid happiness” often represents the hard and risky earthly path. It’s easy in the abstract to say that we should model the virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice; it’s harder to make the decisions that actually build those virtues. These virtues are often forged in pain, through mistakes, and in the face of profound risk. Consequently, Locke understood the vital role of the hope of Heaven in the human mind, declaring it “unavoidable that the infinitely greater possible good should regularly and constantly determine the will in all the successive actions it directs.”

Yet one does not have to be Christian to understand the necessity of virtue for worthwhile happiness. When Jefferson articulated his own Epicurean views, he was hardly espousing orthodox Christianity, but he was still expressing a version of moral law, one that is easily demonstrable from human experience. In the long run, human beings thrive through virtue and wither through vice, and a degree of fortitude is a foundational requirement for human flourishing.

This weekend, my wife and oldest daughter visited her first-choice college, the University of Tennessee. There was one curious moment in an otherwise wonderful weekend. The tour guide noted that the university was there to help students get through the trauma of exams. It brought in masseuses to massage away the stress. It rolls out a sheet of paper, passes out crayons, and lets the students express their rage against algebra. Oh, and it vowed to bring in puppies, so students could cuddle something cute to take the edge off their anxiety.

Is that the pursuit of happiness or the flight from pain? Is that building fortitude or indulging fragility? The degree to which we choose one or the other will shape our national destiny. Our Founders did not risk everything to build a culture that aims to risk nothing.


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