by Merle Hoffman
Americans are a nation of people who feel supremely entitled to happiness. After all, in the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson virtually orders us to pursue it. Calling the Declaration “an expression of the American Mind,” Jefferson proclaimed for future generations that the pursuit of happiness, along with life and liberty, were inalienable rights.
What is happiness? The dictionary defines happiness as the result of chance, something impersonally positive that befalls one like good luck. Pascal believed that because of its arbitrary nature, “we never live, but we hope to live and as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable we should never be so.” And Montaigne even more pessimistically stated that “no man should be called happy until after his death, for human affairs are uncertain and variable and the slightest shock may change them from one state to another wholly different.”
How did happiness, an essentially ephemeral, affective personal state, become codified as an objective and obtainable object of pursuit?
The philosophical roots of the Declaration were in Aristotle, who had definite theories on the meaning and nature of happiness. He saw it as a virtuous activity that resulted from education, the pursuit of wisdom, and participation in community affairs.
Our country’s framers had a realistic view of human nature. They recognized the existence of self-interest but did not view it as an end in itself. Interestingly, the words that were Jefferson’s source for the famous statement were written by John Locke: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Property.” Reflecting the Enlightenment’s view of each individual’s unlimited potential to better him or herself and society, Jefferson changed “property” to “happiness.”
Of course, as a classical idealist, Jefferson viewed happiness as neither a transitory feeling state nor the acquisition of material goods. His definition, like Aristotle’s, is intellectual. Jefferson expected individuals to gain happiness from the pursuit of education, virtue, and civility, which would form the bedrock of a free society. Their pursuit of happiness was the right to pursue a life of reason and acquire knowledge both as an inherent delight and as a condition of freedom.
Happiness for Jefferson was ultimately political because it served political ends. But in changing property (an achievable material goal) to happiness (an unachievable affective state) and in ordering us to pursue it, Jefferson embedded a political and psychological contradiction in the American psyche. It is this confusion between personal happiness and transcendent political good that continues to frustrate and perplex political activists, including feminists. How do we navigate the tension between the two? What language, what concepts do we use?
Today, some 200 years after the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, while there is broad agreement about the definitions of life and liberty codified by law, and backed by institutional power, happiness has lost its Aristotelian meaning. Happiness has been depoliticized, but not as an ephemeral, personal state. In a very deep and organic way, the American Mind has come to express far more of John Locke than of Thomas Jefferson. Happiness has become property, something that can indeed be pursued and captured.
Asked in a 1994 Roper Poll, “When you hear the phrase the American Dream, what is the first thing that comes to mind?” 19 percent — the highest response — answered money and financial security. With 89 percent of Americans stating they were either very happy or pretty happy, one third reported they would be a lot happier and an additional third that they would be somewhat happier if their household income doubled. And for some, happiness may indeed be tied to their pocketbooks. A more recent poll conducted for The Wall Street Journal and NBC News confirmed Roper’s findings: A third of those with six-figure incomes reported they were happy, while just one in five Americans earning less than $30,000 felt that way.
Happiness has become the ultimate product, endlessly reconfigured and redefined to conform to the democratic ideals (and pressures) of American society. An Internet search of hundreds of postings on the 1995-96 Happiness Board Web site finds such definitions as CDs, brand-new socks, Jays shirts, scaring freshmen, stuff, sex, toilet paper, NyQuil, e-mail from God, and breathing — that last an echo of Epicurus, who believed that the purest state of happiness derived from just being alive.
Equally American is the Institute, a nonprofit organization in Sheffield, Massachusetts, whose training materials state categorically that “happiness is not a chance event but the result of choice and personal responsibility.” The institute defines happiness as “not some mysterious good fortune which falls by chance on the lucky few. Instead it is a delightful, empowering and satisfying state of mind and feeling which arises when we make particular choices.” You can learn how to “Decide to be Happy,” says the institute’s seminar program.
Women have also pursued happiness, but as Americans with a difference. In a variation of the Jeffersonian ideal of the pursuit of happiness leading to the responsibilities of citizenship, women were educated and conditioned to believe that their ultimate happiness lay in serving others, ideally through marriage and through the birthing and rearing of children. However, it was not enough for women merely to pursue and achieve this kind of happiness; it was also their full responsibility to maintain it for the entire family, ideally through self-sacrifice.
For a woman, the American State that Madison called the “workshop of liberty” became the family. As a result, women far more than men have viewed happiness (defined as a successful relationship) as the measure by which they would judge their lives.
The feminist movement profoundly challenged this assumption of derivative happiness. It also profoundly challenged the assumptions of social and political reality. Traditional political theory taught that there was an ironclad distinction between the private (personal) and the public (political). This was exploded by the radical genius of the movement’s prime insight, which became the feminist mantra: The personal is political.
According to feminists, the separation of the personal and public spheres was not inherent in the nature of things; it was a social construction. As a result, women began to see and to teach others that the narratives they developed to name and construct their lives were not merely expressions of individual journeys but reflections of the public and social spheres of traditional politics. Their personal realities and much of their physical and psychological sufferings reflected their second-class citizenship and their oppression under patriarchy rather than any inherent gender truth.
Feminism taught that a woman’s life — her “feminine” essence — was essentially political. Sex, gender, reproduction, economics, age, beauty, romance, sexual orientation — all were up for grabs to be deconstructed, analyzed, and redefined through the feminist lens. Only happiness did not receive the benefits of deconstructive analysis and remained apolitically in the realm of the personal.
In search of a definition, happiness cloaked itself as choice or as the pursuit of sexual pleasure. The idea of choice itself (rather than what was chosen) and the primacy of orgasm by any means necessary became litmus tests for what was considered feminist.
At the same time, in a strange way the feminist movement became the meta-phoric “other” for many women, and as symbolic mother or lover was expected to produce not only a political identity but emotional happiness as well.
Emma Goldman’s famous “If I can’t dance I won’t be part of your revolution” expresses what became a deep theme among many feminists. It says that the movement owes its membership happiness, just as the Option Institute sells it.
Perhaps one of the most insidious expressions of the personal becoming an unrealistic, demanding political is the desire and expectation to “have it all.” I have listened to many women recount their deep disappointment with the feminist revolution because 15 or 20 years later they do not have a brilliant career, a loving lover or family, a good bank account, or a high quotient of self-esteem. The movement failed them, they believe; it didn’t deliver. That was what the revolution was about, wasn’t it — giving women the opportunity to do their own thing, to do what makes them happy?
That’s not how I see it. For women, and especially for political activists or feminists working to radically change the world, pursuing personal happiness through the movement can be a dangerous detour. It translates into the expectation that life, the movement, the revolution owes you.
Pursuing personal happiness can lead us to expect loyalty and friendship from political comrades when we should work for functional and strategic alliances. It can lead us to leaving political work because we are burned out and despairing because we’ve been doing this 10, 20, 30 years and the world hasn’t changed fast enough. It can make us feel we’ve failed if we do not achieve political goals that decrease our personal alienation or misery. And it can lead to feminists’ turning on the movement and one another in rage and recrimination because the promise of a brave new world hasn’t changed theirs enough.
Revolutions are not for fun. Which is not to say that one cannot or should not have some or even a great deal of fun while in them. The idea that the continuing feminist revolution was and is about making individual women happy and fulfilled is a continuing error. If some feminists involved in the movement were personally unhappy but the movement achieved even some of its goals of freeing women from violence, oppression, and the tragedies of half-lived lives, it would be a success.
Thomas Jefferson made the pursuit of happiness a revolutionary goal. It failed as a permanent, absolute value because its political meaning was lost in ambiguity and in confusion with the personal desire for consumption and pleasure.
Because personal happiness cannot be pursued, and is always changeable and ephemeral, I would make the case that in the Feminist Mind, the pursuit of happiness should be political in the Jeffersonian sense.
Political happiness would be derived from the daily, frustrating struggle for women’s freedom, equality, and social justice, and from working for a quality of life based more on the ethical and moral principles of feminism than on the pleasure principle. An augmented concept of self and an expanded concept of self-interest could arise through working to change the world from what is to what should be.
If we ever “dance at the revolution,” it is because we are listening to a different drummer, the one that sounds the notes of commitment to a cause and the music of the transcendence that comes from working for the highest ideals.
Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.