America’s Quest for Happiness

little girl with balloon 2

“Happiness is desired by all; and moments of it are probably attained by most. Only moments of it can be attained because happiness is the inner concomitant of neat harmonies of body, spirit and society; and these neat harmonies are bound to be infrequent. There is no simple harmony between our ambitions and achievements because our ambitions tend to outrun achievements….

“There are no simple congruities in life or history. The cult of happiness erroneously assumes them. It is possible to soften the incongruities of life endlessly by the scientific conquest of nature’s caprices, and the social and political triumph over historic injustice. But all such strategies cannot finally overcome the fragmentary character of human existence. The final wisdom of life requires, not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it.

“The irony of America’s quest for happiness lies in the fact that she succeeded more obviously than any other nation in making life ‘comfortable,’ only finally to run into larger incongruities of human destiny by the same achievements by which it escaped the smaller ones. Thus we tried too simply to make sense out of life, striving for harmonies between man and nature and man and society and man and his ultimate destiny, which have provisional but no ultimate validity. Our very success in this enterprise has hastened the exposure of its final limits. Over these exertions we discern by faith the ironical laughter of the divine source and end of all things. ‘He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh’ (Psalm 2, 4).

He laughs because ‘the people imagine a vain thing.’ The Scripture assures us that God’s laughter is derisive, having the sting of judgment upon our vanities in it. But if the laughter is truly ironic it must symbolize mercy as well as judgment. For whenever judgment defines the limits of human striving it creates the possibility of an humble acceptance of those limits. Within that humility mercy and peace can find a lodging place.”

Source: Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, chapter 3, “Prosperity and Virtue”

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Samuele Deiana, via flickr.

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