The elusive butterfly of happiness has been fluttering before humanity for a long time. America’s Thomas Jefferson declared the pursuit of it an inalienable human right over 220 years ago. But a good 1,800 years or so before that, another great farmer-philosopher had seen the urge to chase happiness as an inalienable human instinct, alive and well long before the age of entitlement. “We work hard at doing nothing,” observed Horace caustically of his fellow Romans. “We seek happiness in yachts and four-horse conveyances. (Yet) what you seek is here. . . .”

Jefferson, a consummate politician as well as a philosopher, refrained from defining what he meant by happiness. Horace, as a poet, was less constrained, but even he tended to write about it more in terms of what it was not than what it was — not travel, not ambitious business schemes, not expensive diversions and luxuries, but a quiet, frugal, settled life. A random memory check confirms the wisdom of such circumspection: Attempts to pin down happiness have inspired some wildly varying definitions, all appealing, but none authoritative.

“A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou” were paradise enough for the 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam. Nine centuries later, John Lennon opted for an even more radical simplicity with his view of happiness as “a warm gun” (although he probably had a Thou in mind as well as he sang this). In between came no-nonsense Victorians like Charles Dickens’ Mr. Micawber, who wasn’t having any of that romantic antimaterialism. “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness,” he said firmly. “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Common to this odd trio, however, as to most people, is the belief that the sources of true happiness are circumstantial, external to the self. They may be concrete — money and what it can buy, friends, good food and drink, even good weather. Or they may be as abstract as peace, love, health, youth, beauty and the glittering prizes of public life. It does not take a Jefferson or Horace to see that the pursuit of any happiness dependent on such tenuous things is a fool’s quest, as religions both East and West have been telling their followers for centuries. And yet, despite the anxieties, disappointments and losses that mount up over the course of most people’s lives, somehow the conviction persists that if we just get (or quit) this job, marry (or divorce) that person, move to the country or the city, buy a new car, build a better house, take an exotic vacation, win a lottery or sweep an election, we will be happy.

Now, however, comes a scientific study that may persuade us, against our deeply ingrained instincts, that the monks and ministers were right all along. In an article published late last year, Princeton University psychologists reported a striking pair of findings: that people in warm, sunny California were not, on their own assessment, any happier than people in the cold, windy U.S. Midwest; but (and this is the interesting bit) people in both regions overwhelmingly expected that Californians would be. Extrapolating from their own and others’ research, the psychologists concluded that, contrary to people’s rooted beliefs, there is virtually no correlation between major life circumstances — like climate, wealth, marital status, health, age and looks — and happiness. Most notions of happiness, they say, are misconceived: Not only are beauty queens and lottery winners no happier than anyone else over the long term, but paraplegics are no sadder, and even the bereaved bounce back after a year or so to their “normal” level.

In what, then, do the scientists think happiness consists? More than anything else, their research suggests, our genes dictate our moods. According to a 1996 Minnesota study of twins reared apart, as much as 50 percent of an individual’s tendency to be gleeful or glum is inborn. But, of course, it is that other 50 percent that is interesting. If half our happiness is predetermined and the other half is unaffected by our lot in life, what can we do to be happier? The scientists are as silent on this as Jefferson was, except for feeble allusions to therapy or positive thinking.

We don’t know either. Perhaps it is time to re-examine those counterintuitive religious precepts that counsel us not to look for happiness at all, to struggle to transcend desire, to find life by losing it. Either that, or settle for the fleeting pleasures that happiness is often confused with — an afternoon on the ski slopes, morning light on winter camellias, a terrific book. Horace had that right, too. “Carpe diem quam minimum credula postere,” he said. Seize the day; don’t trust tomorrow a bit.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.