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Pascal Bruckner
Condemned to Joy « Back to Story

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I thoroughly enjoyed this article though I have an objection and it is that

we can too order happiness,no matter how intrusive the outside world is..we our the masters of our mind and happiness
Glenn Abendschoen April 25, 2011 at 6:09 PM
“We have come to believe that the will can readily establish its power over mental states, regulate moods, and make contentment the fruit of a personal decision”.
I don’t know who the “We” is, who is being spoken of in the above assertion. And whether or not “readily establish its power” best describes the process involved in the noblest, most modest and genuine exertions at striving towards the achievement of happiness (whatever that is, needless to say) is certainly debatable. And of course we “readily” (in the sense of “wilfully” and “eagerly”) strive towards happiness if we are so inclined and able.
No, there is no sure- fire way to such an end. But what is else is there other than the will that could possibly lead us to the possibility of power over our mental states, the regulations of our moods and the contentment which can only be arrived at as the result of our will to make personal decisions.
Bhagwad Gita -
"What did you lose that you cry about? What did you bring with you, which you think you have lost? What did you produce, which you think got destroyed? You did not bring anything - whatever you have, you received from here. Whatever you have given, you have given only here. Whatever you took, you took from God. Whatever you gave, you gave to him. You came empty handed, you will leave empty handed. What is yours today, belonged to someone else yesterday, and will belong to someone else the day after tomorrow. You are mistakenly enjoying the thought that this is yours. It is this false happiness that is the cause of your sorrows."
"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".

Umm . . . credit is extended on the basis of wealth and ability to pay, in the form of the present value of future income. Few have been extended credit that involves "hundreds of times" of their wealth, let alone current income.
I feel dumber for having read this. Usually I like to have more substantive criticism, but there is no substance here to criticize. Bruckner is encouraged to worry less about what people think of him.
the logical way to this situation perhaps maybe to just strive to lead a life dedicated to a cause (maybe for a beloved one, or for work, or for pleasure...anything worthwhile) but, without, expecting the results of our actions. If one is made to be constantly aware of each and every moment of one's life and how it can be made more perfect, one is bound to feel irritated. Too much self appraisal is detremental. The issue here is to keep doing things that one has faith in. Getting results and expectations is a different issue and the cause of suffering also.
Fabulous article! He has nailed the phenomenon with wit, insight and intelligence.
Es una reflexion interesante. Pero hemos llegado a donde estamos por el conjunto de acciones elaboradas por mentes en su mayoria perversas, que en aras de ostentar los diferentes`poderes fueron elaborando esas acciones hasta hacernos luchadores incansables contra una vida miserable ¿los grilletes atavicos son sin cerradura ni candado?
One wonders how this corresponds to the cult of grinning, now de rigueur in photo portraits.
Thank you. Brilliant and so true. Albeit I don't think I believe I feel bad about being unhappy but being unhappy in itself is bad enough. Sometimes I think we need unhappiness to put happiness in perspective. As for regulating diets, aging, physical well-being, we can't be stingent and moderate and chaste all the time as the hedonistic aspects of life are some of the most memorable and, within these moments, one can learn as well. We can't control the inevitable that is old age and death. We are all constantly learning and we learn not just by abstaining, abiding, following rules. Good article - The Publisher www.sasareport.com
I reckon that the problem derives from equating happiness with fun. Hedonism precludes any lasting happiness and cannot reach joy. The pleasure it provides lasts as long as the particular activity lasts, and the memory affords a little pleasure, but mostly creates a desire for more, as an addiction. I regard happiness as something that can and ought to exist regardless of circumstances. Fun may add enjoyment, and trials may increase sadness, but underneath a wellspring of joy can be built, so that neither prison nor fame and fortune can ruin it. No doubt none of this is news, however it might be to some. The 'duty to be happy' is something that causes a lot of problems within my religion, because we believe "Adam fell that man might be, and man is that he might have joy." So for a Mormon to be unhappy means something is wrong. This comes from a misunderstanding, however. One of the goals of the LDS church is 'perfection of the Saints.' Some take this to mean that it's possible to actually achieve perfection, which is utterly false. The ultimate goal is perfection, and the process is continual improvement, by way of intermediary goals. We should learn line upon line, precept upon precept, even as Jesus Himself.

The point of mentioning all this is that it forms a sort of bridge between the old world you describe and the new. Part of the reason for the new mania for happiness is a diminution of pains other than those you describe, for example, I have a mother, two sisters, a sister-in-law, two nephews and three nieces that are all alive only because of modern medicine. Not 50 years ago all of them would now be dead. It used to be so common for children to die that there are many examples in history and literature of parents not wanting to attach themselves too much to their little ones until they were at least five years old.

Yet there were and have always been people who could be happy despite circumstances. That's the ideal of the Stoic school of philosophy, after all. If there could be a duty to be happy, it ought to be along those lines, to learn and grow into happiness, so that even terrible circumstances do not end in ruin.
He had me until cigarettes.

They are exactly what the writer first said of the debt crisis: being sold by the tobacco industry that one "must have" today's happiness with little regard to the mounting debt being accrued by the body. "What is needed is a renewed humility," says the writer. Yes, and does not that not start with acknowledging the very real limitations of this machine called the body?
True wisdom is joy and this article has condemned me to that joy. Thanks.
I think happiness is an state of mind that shows up anytime someone has the ability to appreciate and give thanks for... regardless of their current situation. I personally don't think people is unhappy cuz their are not happy but because the lack of their ability to be grateful.
David Abramoff, Ph.D. March 21, 2011 at 11:23 AM
Also try 'The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It Hard to Be Happy' by Michael Foley. He's an Irishman, and who better to be an authority on happiness and suffering? (except perhaps Ukrainians, Poles, South African Blacks, Jews, Palestinians...) ? DA
David Abramoff, Ph.D. March 21, 2011 at 11:02 AM
A long-winded, if accurate, anti-panegyric against mindless feel-goodism in America. Who is Mr. Bruckner trying to be: Bernard-Henri Lévy? Perhaps something was lost in Ms. Cornel's translation. The American liberal writer Barbara Ehrenreich addressed the subject better in 'Brightsided'. But whatever makes you happy. ;-) DA
Yes – we live in a prophylactic society and anyone not following the status quo is considered a dinosaur or simply an outcast of a lower intelligence. Happiness when dictated as a necessary permanent condition, which is what the media constantly espouses, however doesn’t really define; decimates the unique cliques of the human condition. The lack of quality, humanistic education and critical thinking on a secondary level has also significantly contributed to the blinding, numbing effects of the frivolity of our age. Deep thinking, sustained reading, reflective discussions, sense of historical perspective, poetry are slowly being eroded away by pragmatic thinking, ordered lifestyle and the pursuit of wealth. Medicine, once an independent bastion of knowledge is also contaminated by pharmaceutical conglomerates convincing people that their tepid sadness for an event, life’s injustices, moments of natural grief need to be treated. Suffering of any kind, whether it is mental or physical, needs immediate treatment as if it were unnatural for man/woman to suffer.
Ramesh Raghuvanshi March 21, 2011 at 12:23 AM
Happiness is always relative term.Most people want approval from others for their happiness. Most people appreciate to those who are successful and every one think success is only cariteria of happiness.I think when you fulfill your motive you do some creative work and complete it at that moment you enjoy pure joy and get self-satisfaction that is real happiness.
Dangerous oversimplifications. One only needs to do a routine round of blogs on the internet or on Facebook to know that the expression of sorrows is in a very healthy state.
Bruckner describes one thread of pre-enlightenment Christianity perhaps, but not the only one. Certainly earthly pleasures are dim compared to those of beatitude, but they are real and good nonetheless because they come to us from God. The desire for a decent life seems to him suspect as well, and prayer seems to him the only recourse against pain (did aspirin really make prayer obsolete?)

Health, food, fitness, etc really are good; I think it is better to look at how we have made them ultimate goods instead of as being subordinate to our end (and desire!) to be loved by and to love God and others. They are not the problem themselves; rather the problem is that we often imagine that we have no shot at happiness (=salvation) without them.

Ignatius, after he learned from his excessive penances, did not council disdain for earthly pleasures and "fulfillments," but rather "indifference," by which he meant that we are not desolate if they are taken from us; that in the face of losses of earthly pleasures our true joy and treasure remains untouched.
Thank you, Bruckner and Cornel.

This summary of how we arrived at our present way of thinking of happiness is interesting, and it's useful for seeing how arbitrary (considered from the point of view of an individual born into such a time) are our ways of thinking about happiness.

Freedom.
Thank you for providing the quality and variety of content.
Also, to show my American excess, I have one more comment after reviewing comments, and other articles. Might as well throw it out there. Happiness can be found in suffering, as I do everyday when I go to my gym. The pursuit of a journey seems to be a primary theme in humanity. We have ended our journey to satisfy basic needs, so we need other outlets for this barbaric pattern of survivalistic behavior. I know many, myself included, that are happy working excessively excessively. When arguing and debating. Gossip. The absence of money when Ive overspent it. Eating and exercising in obsession, occasionally. These ffluctuations in life make it worthwhile, I'd think.. Negativity seems to be the opposite of positivity, but is it? Maybe negative is positive as much as positive is negative.
Okay, the problem was clearly addressed in the article, though the solution was stated as Westerners needing "renewed humility". A description of what renewed humility is stated, and As I finish the hasty conclusion to the article, I am left thinking "....And?"
What would the active state of renewed humility in the West look like? How can we start to change our hard pressed Western habits to support this intriguing perspective of renewed humility? Are there any role models that show the behaviors that renewed humility look like? I consider myself humble, but everyone is biased by their own life's viewpoint. We need just as many examples and analysis of what this humility appears to be as Mr. Bruckner provides for what the problems Western gluttony has. As it is, this article shows that problem academia encounters constantly, a stated abstraction that does not show physical application of the abstraction.
Happiness may not be a near-permanent condition, however, I think contentment can be.
I am happy that I no longer need worry about not being happy enough!That's a joy enough never to be overriden!
Wonderful piece of analysis and writing.
If only all French philosophers wrote like Pascal Bruckner. ;)
Well written article - however may I point out the difference between "joy" and "fun" ? There is a vast difference between the two and American society is overly preoccupied with "having fun".

Here are some very real scenarios that a person cannot have fun but still experience joy.

- Have a serious illness and have joy.

- Be in prison and have joy.

There are many more... But I think you get the idea.


When I was 20, I could go to the gym and lift weights six days a week. Now I am 40 and can only lift weights 3 days a week, and while I rationally know, heck I'm forty, emotionally I feel like I'm being lazy.

And speaking as a writer, I think the media is also to blame for telling us about all these new talents that came out of nowhere, without reminding us that most of them worked alone, unnoticed, for years before being discovered.
A well written article, but a couple comments are necessary. First, the notion of "happiness" as mentioned in the Declaration of Independence is quite likely strongly informed by the Greek notion of eudaimonia (human flourishing) that was very different from the self-indulgent pursuit of happiness chastised by the author. Second, Protestantism and its various offshoots have had a strong hand in promoting this more facile notion of happiness, from interpretations of Calvinism to Mary Baker Eddy and "prosperity gospel" adherents. As the author is French, and I only assume more influenced by Catholic notions of Christianity, this is an understandable oversight. Oh, and Frank Capra bears some of the blame as well. But to reiterate, an otherwise good article.
This article made me unhappy.
In pre-modern times the the French and English nobility have always sought happiness -- just look at the pleasures of the hunt, food and clothing of the Plantagenet and Tudor kings, dukes, and earls -- even if a consciousness of the fleeting transitoriness of life and the fickleness of fortune tempered enjoyment with Christian second thoughts at the end. Elizabeth Jenkins's book, The Princes of the Tower, gives a good description of this aspect of the privileged few. Or Otto Trevelyan's life of Fox.
Ahh, French paradox and wit! A pleasure in itself with no signs of guilt. And very well done.
Bravo, Alexis Cornel! For me, happiness occurs spontaneously - around a dinner table with family and friends, enjoying unmeasured portions of food and wine, fine conversation and a sense of belonging. There is a different kind of happiness to be found in solitude and reflection, and even melancholy. The endless quest for perfect pecs, a flat stomach and an unlined face has created a strange tribe of shiny, sculpted people of indeterminate age, who are incapable of showing their emotions or relishing a slab of full, fat unpasteurized cheese. Instead of enjoying the rich pleasures of the written word, they are sweating it out in the gym for hours every day. Even people with terminal cancer are forced to endure the awful terminology inflicted on them by the purveyors positive thinking - they are survivors, not victims - which trivializes their fears and discourages them from seeking solace and understanding.
Thank you so much for writing this marvellous article.
How to be happy:

Happiness is a phantom invented by the mind. Chasing the phantom causes restlessness. Best not to have the idea in the first place, then you can get down to some serious entertainment like watching seagulls.
Enlightening.
Staying up late trying to figure it all out ? Here is a pertinent but relatively lengthy article you might find to be of interest ? --- cheers ---Dad ---
Beautifully written and argued. Much better to do one's duty to society and oneself than to pursue happiness
I loved this. What is identified and analysed here is, in part, an attribute of the ideological separating of individual and society, the former (aka consumer) constructed as autonomous agent of (personal) destiny, the latter as being disconnected. Surely the 'healthy' person has 'silent', invisible body and feeling and is wholly (healthily) in full, dare one say joyous, interaction with others, awhile accepting human realism; it is the 'sick soul' that is self-absorbed, consuming its own body, withdrawn from interaction and politics, and engaged in the 'mirthless' pursuit of the gaudiest parodies of health and happiness.
Thank-you, Mr. Bruckner. You are wise. I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders as I read this.
The article makes me unhappy because i just cannot find a fault with it. Extremely well written. Kudos.
There seems to be no real attempt to define happiness. Is it merely the absence of unhappiness or is it something more positive like joy? One can be happy (or perhaps content) with the mentioned well functioning body but not satisfied with one's general state or social order or the general misery in the world. Like a good deal of philosophical mental wandering the area is to vaguely explored as to be even mildly interesting.
There is a difference between the happiness of things and happiness that comes from God - the person who puts God first is free to live life while the person who puts things first is captured by them. That's why Jesus said "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." That is where true happiness is found.
Es ven veritat.
well done, my compliments to the author, and translator
A jewelled Rolex would support a community of a dozen of Mother Teresa's nuns for a year, with some left for the unfortunate souls the tend to.We are a seriously disordered nation, increasingly tightening our perimiter of concerns for others beyond our sight. There is a hurting world just over the horizon, beyond the gated communities, the beach houses, the summer homes. How and when the recokoning will come is not a matter for discussion in polite company. Yes, let them eat cake, but it may well be yours.
Prosperity does that to people everywhere. It's not an exclusively "Western" phenomenon. Many in the Chinese middle class now try talk therapy. Ennui is rampant throughout the upper middle class in India and elsewhere.

To classify this as a "Western cult" is to demean the whole idea of satiation, of what happens to people after their basic physical wants and needs are satisfied, and they start to look both inward and outward asking what else there is.
"all this runs up against our finitude."

I don't want to run up against finitude because one of my greatest joys is eating properly-prepared flounder. But I can't help thinking that the author, in decrying Voltaire, is playing the part of the anchorite in another Frenchman's literary effort.

I think he also completely missed Voltaire's signal contribution to the cause of human fulfillment (as opposed to "happiness") which was expressed (by another philosopher) as "work in your own garden."
This is a most satisfying translation. Was the original French as good as the English translation?

Wow. Already forwarded to select family.
Our conscious minds are conditioned to seek pleasure and avoid pain. When we get what we want we experience pleasure. When we don't get what we want or when what was attained eventually goes away we experience pain. The mistake is not understanding how this neuro-conditioning works and thinking that the mind states it produces (happiness, sadness, etc) are "real" things. Like everything else they come and go. You can't avoid the vicissitudes of life but you don't have to consciously react to them. I don't know if this qualifies as "happiness" but it brings peace to the mind.
Craig S. Maxwell March 03, 2011 at 7:15 AM
Condemned to pleasure would've been a much more accurate title. Real joy is almost extinct today. No one said it better than Auden:

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
And thank God that times have changed!
Well, once they suffered from not being happy and now we suffer from knowing we are not as happy as we should be, which means we still suffer from not being happy. We look forward always to a better future, which rather dims the present. So things are pretty much the same after all?
excellent essay. I riffed on it here:

"The Pursuit of Happiness

http://gatesofvienna.blogspot.com/2011/03/pursuit-of-happiness.html
happiness, félicité - qu'est ce que ça veut dire? Ça n'existe pas. C'est un fantôme.
Glück, chance, bonheur = luck - that's all it is, perhaps.
I thoroughly enjoyed this,and sent it out to numerous people.One person told me it was too long to read and wasn't interested.I haven't heard back from anyone else.
I guess they are all too happy to care.
Happiness is one of those qualities which, if pursued for themselves, will continue to elude us. Happiness is an extra, a result of other qualities. Those, for example, who are generous are generally happy.
Reading this article made me happy.
Mr. Bruckner reminds us of what used to be. I leave it to more eloquent people than I to continue his reminders, save for this point:

Happiness is a by-product of goals achieved. No goals and no accomplishments means no happiness. Contentment, satiation, ecstatic pleasure perhaps, but no happiness. Setting and working to achieve worthy goals ought bring fleeting (but frequent) happiness, while having no goals at all, save the satisfaction of physical desire, means of life of meaningless ennui.
When all else fails, focus on your navel. And hum.
Well Mr. 'Mountain' since you are clearly condemned to joylessness, I suggest you take your superior intellect to Huffpo, or better yet Swampfever Underground. What's my 'source' you ask? Why, your name is on the list of newly received patients at the lunatic assylum.
Oh, please. Just enjoy your life.
Guilt free.
What else should we do?
Suzy Amis Haines March 01, 2011 at 7:31 PM
As someone who spent ten years employed in the health and fitness industry, I could not agree more with Mr. Bruckner assessment of our culture's obsession with happiness. Rather than teaching our children that happiness is a lucky by-product of a moral life; sweet, but temporal, we train our children to pursue happiness as an end in and of itself. No wonder our culture crumbles. Abuse of credit, drugs, sex and food are the result of a people who demand a shortcut to happiness. Instant pleasure trounces delayed gratification every time.
A truly great and timely piece. For over 20 years now I have learned to be myself, both sad and happy and to be accepting of both. I am human, I err. I adhere to a daily spiritual practice. I believe in a power greater than myself, I also accept that I can nothing alone. Daily I surrender my will. It's not easy, as the writer states, to live a life of balance and yet, it is possible. Once more I am back to saving before buying. A simple, productive and meaningful life is my practice. No more, no less.
What rot. Lately I regret that I purchased a gift subscription to City Journal for a friend.

So many writers on city-journal.org now seem to be wannabe Dalrymples. Suppose you get an editor who suggests that people first graduate from high school and then publish--and try proving one little thing, as well as cite a source now and then.
I can't relate to everything said in this article, but I get a sense that it explains some things. In America I've noticed that people try to "bob" from one happy experience to another, to be on a perpetual high, and they become very distraught and/or angry if they see anyone try to take that experience away from them to, say, pay attention to something important that's happening in their midst. I've never understood this, since while I was growing up I was taught to be honest with myself about what was happening inside me and around me. So I've experienced sadness and despair, and happiness.

It also helps explain the societal development I've seen of people being concerned with being "green" and scared about global warming, promoting a societal guilt about our very existence, and the various penances for it.
Well, this all does sound . . . French.