Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness

It always depresses me to see how accurately Alexis de Tocqueville, a twenty-five-year-old upstart, took our measure two hundred years ago. He started out admiring and found himself predicting (quite accurately, as it turns out) a sad and shallow trajectory from heroism to petulance. How sharply modern it sounds, his observation that Americans are “restless in the midst of their well-being.”

Our genius was to make happiness the birthright of all, not the privilege of the elite. Our downfall was how we defined happiness.

“The inhabitant of the United States attaches himself to the goods of this world as if he was assured of not dying,” Tocqueville remarked. He saw how desperate we were to be unique, irreplaceable individuals, and how hard we tried to prove it by the stuff we amassed. Our defining characteristics, he said (and who could disagree?) were industriousness, the love of material well-being, and the restless hunger for change. Swirled together, these characteristics soon proved combustible: The equality and prosperity we managed to attain by dint of our industriousness and eager consumption only inflamed our restlessness.

Social scientists Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey use Tocqueville’s observations to frame a larger problem, the eternal discontent that now plagues much of the “developed” world—the chunk that was shaped by the Enlightenment. Many of our constitutions, our social contracts, explicitly defend our pursuit of happiness. But it is hard to be happy when you are restless.

In Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment, the Storeys lean hard on Tocqueville’s observations of the newborn United States because we are the perfect test case. We are all about happiness, yet we are handicapped from the start, because we cherish an abiding suspicion of the thought of the past. Instead of learning what matters from those who came before us, we place our trust in technology, and that leads us to exploit nature. “Boundless economic growth comes to be expected,” the Storeys note. “Small risks come to seem intolerable; autonomy comes to defy every limit.” Wanting it all, we trip over incompatible desires.

If, as Aristotle said, it is our way of pursuing happiness that makes us who we are, it is no wonder we are in trouble.

Montaigne, the first of the thinkers the Storeys consider, inherited the heroic ideals of happiness and promptly discarded them, turning instead to ordinary life. It is enough, he insisted, to simply live. If someone is upset about wasting time, muttering, “I have done nothing today!” he scoffs, “What, have you not lived? That is not only your fundamental occupation, but your most illustrious one.”

Montaigne “challenges us to stay chez nous,” the Storeys write, “to learn to be at home within ourselves and within our world, and to cease measuring our lives against any transcendent goal or standard.”

The pandemic nudged many of us in that direction, removing the daily exercises in comparison, the boss’s ever-present yardstick. Now, we do not want to go back to life as it was. “He who knows himself no longer takes what is foreign for his own,” Montaigne observes. At home with ourselves, familiar with who we really are, we cultivate our genuine interests, not those we are advised to pursue or those we think will improve us. We find it far easier to say no to invitations, committees, projects that would tug us away from our own interests.

Montaigne spoke his mind freely and plainly yet refused to take himself too seriously. By multiplying and varying his pleasures, he refined the art of careless nonchalance. To learn to be nonchalant, he said, is to learn to be free. “We must go up to the last limits of pleasure, but guard ourselves from engaging still further, where it begins to be mingled with pain.”

That quote pops up at me like a round-bottomed clown. How often have I agonized over work, so full of angst that I had to pull myself back from the brink and remind myself that I am lucky to be doing what I love and it ought not to feel like torture? I go too far. So many ambitions, whether to improve one’s home or one’s character or one’s mind, go too far, and in the end, they take us away from ourselves.

Montaigne was setting forth a “new and particular ideal of happiness,” the Storeys explain. He stressed Aristotelian moderation, but not by disciplined self-denial so much as by variety: “an arrangement of our dispositions, our pursuits, and our pleasures that is calculated to keep us interested.” By not caring overmuch about any one thing, we could remain at ease and in balance.

Today, we might associate his method with modern traits of flexibility, openness, resilience. Critics might say he hedged, refusing to commit. But the ease brought him to a genuine, playful tolerance. It allowed him to write, sincerely, “There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees.” It also allowed him to remain within the Catholic church while noting that virgin births were quite common in Islam, suggesting there might be a naturalistic explanation of the Resurrection, and asking what sort of God would accept the blood of the innocent as payment for the sins of the guilty.

Had this country practiced Montaigne’s brand of contentment, we would not have gone whole-hog into materialism and conspicuous consumption; our education and our triumphs would have spread across many fields instead of concentrating on Hollywood, rocket ships, and medical heroics. Ideological battles would have been settled in a draw. We might even have learned how to coexist.

Forget life coaches; Montaigne’s are the insights I crave, because he actually managed to attain the contentment that eludes us. Bah, you scoff, it was easy for him, a man of wealth, writing in a stone-walled turret. But it was not easy. “There is no knowledge so hard to acquire as the knowledge of how to live this life well and naturally,” he observed. As a young man, he worried himself sick about dying. This angst was more justified than neurotic; he lost his best friend early on, also his father, his brother, and five of his six children. Then he did nearly die, knocked unconscious by a collision on horseback and vomiting blood in his delirium.

That near-death experience cured him. “From now on,” writes Sarah Bakewell, “he tried to import some of death’s delicacy and buoyancy into life. ‘Bad spots’ were everywhere, he wrote in a late essay. We do better to ‘slide over this world a bit lightly and on the surface.’”

He learned to glide like an Olympic figure skater, and he left his fear behind.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.