Pascal Bruckner is a French writer and philosopher. His most recent book is Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy
The full essay appeared in City Journal.
Now that it has become the horizon of our democracies, a matter of ceaseless work and effort, happiness is surrounded by anxiety. We feel compelled to be saved constantly from what we are, poisoning our own existence with all kinds of impossible commandments. Our hedonism is not wholesome but haunted by failure. However well behaved we are, our bodies continue to betray us. Age leaves its mark, illness finds us one way or another, and pleasures have their way with us, following a rhythm that has nothing to do with our vigilance or our resolution.
What is needed is a renewed humility. We are not the masters of the sources of happiness; they ever elude the appointments we make with them, springing up when we least expect them and fleeing when we would hold them close. The excessive ambition to expunge all that is weak or broken in body or mind, to control moods and states of soul, sadness, chagrin, moments of emptiness—all this runs up against our finitude, against the inertia of the human species, which we cannot manipulate like some raw material. We have the power to avoid or to heal certain evils, yes, but we cannot order happiness as if it were a meal in a restaurant.