I am happy

-I am happy.
-Who is speaking?

A couple of weeks ago I went out with my friend Alan and his friend Owen, who is a philosopher. Trust a philosopher for a beautiful definition – when the conversation came round to the topic of my book, Owen improvised a breathtaking definition of happiness that merged Aristotle and Ricoeur. Unfortunately, my paraphrase won’t be as pretty, but it was something like: happiness is about seeing that one’s life follows a certain purposive narrative, one in which one has been both true to oneself and true to the values one believes in. To achieve this self-fashioning is to be happy. I hope I haven’t deviated too wildly from Owen’s riff.

That riff is, I think, an accurate reflection of how happiness is coded among the cultured level of American, and perhaps simply Western, society in 2009. Happiness, on this reading, is not a patchwork of happy feelings – but it is a judgment. Or, rather, it is an odd hybrid of judgment and intuition, for not only does one judge that this narrative is happy, but that judgment feels happy and reinforces the continuance of the narrative. Finding that I am happy makes me happy, and inclines me to continue in the path I have set out on.

As we saw have noted before, voluptĂ©, in the eighteenth century, shed that aspect of itself that was essentially sociable – that agreeableness towards people – and became centered on the self’s pleasure. Happiness, too, seems originally to have been about feeling, that phenomenon in which the self is king and subject. But it moved (in a movement in which one catches a flash of ambivalence) towards being both a feeling and a judgment. As a judgment, it crosses the border from the private to the public. The king is toppled, and – at the same time that politics becomes the science of creating a society in which the pursuit of happiness is maximally possible – one can ask: how do you know you are happy?
Perhaps you are mistaken. You think you are happy. You aren’t happy.

Of course, this is the Freudian moment. If happiness is not simply a private matter, if I don’t have to accept that the statement “I am happy” must be true, because I say so – at that moment we have another problem: the problem of false happiness. The problem that I am happy is not a judgment, but a delusion. An intimate error. An error about our intimacy. And perhaps an error about our access to that narrative, that self fashioning, that self.