Pursuit of Happiness

This phrase is easily one of the most discussed of the US Declaration of Independence. It is imprecise simply because the definition of happiness can be so widely interpreted. (Bhutan measures itself on “Gross National Happiness”, though how they measure it is beyond me.) I don’t think that essential happiness differs today from the 18th century, but I do believe that there are layers of complexity to happiness. I was reminded of this as I walked to work and saw a sign saying that “Happiness is expensive.” The men who wrote the constitution were writing a document based on their own experience. Their vision was of an enlightened society that essentially did right by its inhabitants. The details of how that could be attained were ambivalent. Contrast that with 18th century England, a fixed hierarchical society, and you can understand how happiness in either place might be different. Happiness in England might have varied according to what social strata a person was on. The more complex and stratified a society gets, the more complex simple pleasures can become. Hearth and home can evolve from a cottage to an estate. Dinner can evolve from having enough to eat to table cloths, silver and cut crystal. Essentially, the complex society develops fashions for doing things. English manners, a form of fashion and often Byzantine in scope, developed thusly. It enabled the hierarchy to distinguish one class from the next. Of course, the complex society also gives rise to style which evolves according to what “tastemakers” decree is fashionable. This is where the sign I saw coming to work fits in. Fashion is expensive and to be fashionable is, for some, happiness. I don’t believe that to be true for most people, but it is true for some. But, whether it is true or not, it is a huge engine to the economy. Perfectly good items will be discarded because they are no longer fashionable. This interests me because it was, quite clearly, the reason for the various styles that swept through England in the 18th century. Baroque, rococo, Gothick, chinoiserie and neo-classicism all evolved as a way to get people to spend more money to be fashionable and, I suppose, to be happy. Contrast this with the Colonies where happiness was not having to pay taxes to the Crown. Quite clearly, happiness has more than a few interpretations. It just depends on how much money you have.

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