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Happiness, by Florida Pier
Happiness is what we each claim to be in search of. It is the thing that reformers, idealists, sociologists and socialists each think to make possible by fitting the world to the mould of their ideas. Yet when a single individual declares himself happy there is the oddest appearance of flatness exhibited by all his hearers. They say lamely, “How nice,” and have nothing further to add. The atmosphere takes on a dispiriting feel of finality, as though the combined attitude of those present was, “Of course, if people are going to be happy, there’s nothing to be done about it. That just ends it.” With the result that every one except the avowedly happy person is so depressed that there seems no prospect of the millenium in the near future, or ever, as the sight of ecstasy in another invariably produces such deep melancholy in all its beholders.
It is so different when anyone declares himself unhappy. Then at once everyone has a glad lift of the heart. Here is something to do, and all rush to do it. They are ardently sympathetic. They ask just how and why he is unhappy, and soothe by saying that they know that precise malaise. They understand it to a marvel. They have had friends who have felt the same. The two unhappy people mount on steps of echoing comprehension until they are fairly chanting and caroling in their misery. They find the mood productive of so much. It brings them closer and makes the world seem a more interesting place.
Happiness is too elusive, ephemeral, to be even named. It does not permit of the analysis so warmly engrossing in the opposing state. It even seems a little blind and unthinking to those who do not at the moment share it. If the happy person had no ills of his own, there were surely plenty of others ills in the world. There were, for instance, our own ills. His ignoring of these, though we would not go so far as to force them on his attention, strikes us a shade unfriendly. It makes us pronounce his joy, if not positively irritating, at least rather foolish. We cannot ask him why he is happy, and match his symptoms with our own gladsome ones, and tell him of acquaintances who were happy in just the same way, and what they did about it. He is happy, therefore he needs nothing more, and we are useless and abandoned. Ascending higher and higher, he has rendered, struck the top note all by himself. He scaled the peaks quite alone, and there is nothing left for us but a much lower note, a note that we are forced by the swing of the emotional pendulum to make wholly bass.
This may be the reason why misery is said to love company. It knows that, being misery, it will be such extremely good company. And perhaps we have now explained the source of what has always seemed so absurd a trait. That is the disinclination to admit one’s happiness. If we are accused of it the instinct is always to protest, “Oh, I have has many troubles as most people. I may not show it, but I am pretty much worried at times” so we go on, spurred perhaps by the human instinct for making oneself liked, desirious of being tactful, aware of the solecism of telling one’s age in public it if is a young one, or of vaunting any other particular good fortune unless it is shared by all.
It is possible that we all know more of unhappiness, and for that reason feel at home in its presence and capable of glibness regarding it. It renders us gauche. Happiness we regard as something for the future, something to be attempted when things are very different indeed, when we have quite got out of all our present troubles and acquired sufficient leisure in which to change ourselves. So that when a person apparently conceives of happiness as a thing of the present, compatible with life as it is, we are half chagrined, and wholly flattened. When everyone is happy, then declaring it, though redundant, will not be anti-social. Now it is in such disfavor that Irish people tell with tightly disapproving lips of the young girl who jumped on to the wishing-stone, crying, “I haven’t a wish in the world,” and the old crone who retorted: “Then ye have need to wish for a soul.” The story shows such a disregard for the feelings of Providence, who, after centuries of trying to make us happy, must have felt such relief that one person at least was content and gladly trustful.
The idea has just come that, as fat, brainless people are well known to be more than commonly cheerful, and the greater one’s degree of intelligent sensibility the greater one’s capacity for unhappiness, it is very possible that when one announces oneself happy one announces one’s limited evolution. The pause that follows such an announcement may be the moment in which our small wit is reflected on and, complacently aware of their own capacity for woe, the audience note that there are evidences about us of coming rotundity. This is a thought to crush even the happy person.
The unleavened listener gazes on your bubbling mood and comforts himself by his own logic and your lack of it. The world is a madness of petty irritations and great wrongs. They overbalance the good. He has too clear a brain to ignore this, and, being reasonable, is sad. You see his reasonableness and his reasoning, and it is one of the lights in your sparkling senses. Sadness is heavier than gladness, yet by recklessly, senselessly throwing your weight on the side of gladness you have made it the greater, and with you atop of it it proves a peak of exhilaration. You see the awkwardness you have caused, the general predicament you create, and this is a final fillip to your state. If it was unreasonableness on which you based your first delight nothing sane should be expected to turn you. Inspired pervisity is your lay. You are happy. It is the very piquancy of happiness that makes it amusing. If facts could not prevent your gaiety, how could the dished expression of familiars have any effect? Every reason for not being happy only makes being so the more diverting.
Florida Pier (1883-1979)
in her near-weekly column (1908-1913) “The Gentler View,” Harper’s Weekly (December 2, 1911) : 26 (link at hathitrust)
same (University of Michigan) scan at google : link
6 October 2022