The eighteenth century saw the rise of new techniques that improved agricultural production; it also saw new medicines—in particular, alkaloids and salicylic acid, an ancestor of aspirin whose curative and analgesic properties worked wonders.
Suddenly, this world was no longer condemned to be a vale of tears; man now had the power to reduce hunger, ameliorate illness, and better master his future. People stopped listening to those who justified suffering as the will of God. If I could relieve pain simply by ingesting some substance, there was no need to have recourse to prayer to feel better.
The new conception of happiness was captured in a phrase of Voltaire’s in 1736: “Earthly paradise is here where I am.” … If paradise is here where I am, then happiness is here and now, not yesterday, in an age for which I might be nostalgic, and even less in some hypothetical future.
In this upheaval of temporal perspectives, poverty and distress lose all legitimacy, and the whole work of enlightened nations becomes eliminating them through education and reason, and eventually science and industry. …
In the 1960s, two major shifts transformed the right to happiness into the duty of happiness. The first was a shift in the nature of capitalism, which had long revolved around production and the deferral of gratification, but now focused on making us all good consumers. Working no longer sufficed; buying was also necessary for the industrial machine to run at full capacity.
To make this shift possible, an ingenious invention had appeared not long before, first in America in the 1930s and then in Europe in the 1950s: credit…
We would live well in the present and pay back later. Today, we’re all aware of the excesses that resulted from this system, since the financial meltdown in the United States was the direct consequence of too many people living on credit, to the point of borrowing hundreds of times the real value of their possessions.
The second shift was the rise of individualism. Since nothing opposed our fulfillment any longer—neither church nor party nor social class—we became solely responsible for what happened to us.
It proved an awesome burden: if I don’t feel happy, I can blame no one but myself. So it was no surprise that a vast number of fulfillment industries arose, ranging from cosmetic surgery to diet pills to innumerable styles of therapy, all promising reconciliation with ourselves and full realization of our potential. “Become your own best friend, learn self-esteem, think positive, dare to live in harmony,” we were told by so many self-help books, though their very number suggested that these were not such easy tasks. …
Happiness is no longer a matter of chance or a heavenly gift, an amazing grace that blesses our monotonous days. We now owe it to ourselves to be happy, and we are expected to display our happiness far and wide.