Unraveling the Pursuit of Happiness: A Journey Through the Ages

This post about the pursuit of happiness through the ages stems from a particularly interesting conversation I’ve had with one of my clients who takes part in Story-Based Coaching for Real Life Quests. We were discussing the pressure to be happy and the guilt some experience for failing to be happy all the time.

That’s when I mentioned that the idea that happiness is somehow mandatory or even a human right is relatively new.

Our chat meandered down a rabbit hole of cultural artifacts and different perspectives on happiness in different places and ages. Since it seemed like an interesting topic, what follows is a summary of my thoughts on the pursuit of happiness.

The Pursuit of Happiness Through the Ages

In a nutshell, my argument is that, in Western culture, we’ve somehow managed to normalize the idea that just because we have the right to be happy, we should be happy all the time. That it’s mandatory to be happy and we’ve failed at life if we don’t experience happiness constantly. This perspective is a source of tremendous pressure and doesn’t really help achieve actual happiness.

To counter this bias, here’s a brief history of what people from other ages thought was worth pursuing. Heads-up: it wasn’t always happiness.

In what follows, I’m inviting you to discuss the perspective on happiness in Western culture through the ages. I’m a writer, so naturally I’ll be referencing some of the popular stories in each age as relevant cultural artifacts. In other words, particular stories or themes that were prevalent in a given age can shed light on a topic.

This approach intentionally limits the aspects we discuss. I’m not about to write an entire treaty on the subject in a blog post. However, this limitation also means we’re skipping lots of potential topics we could address. Please be aware that this is not an exhaustive or complete depiction of the pursuit of happiness. We’re exploring the mainstream ideas of each age in a given geographical space and having some fun while we’re at it.

1. Of Tragedies and the Perfect City: Ancient Greece

We’ll start with the ancient Greeks because so much of Western culture relies on concepts that emerged back then.

Ancient Greece was populated by independent city-states known as poleis. The polis was not just a city but a complete political, social, and cultural entity. It was the foundation upon which Greek society was built.

The pursuit of happiness was closely intertwined with the ideal of building the perfect city, which valued order, justice, and the common good over individual happiness. This focus on the perfect city shaped the values and aspirations of the ancient Greeks. It emphasized the importance of moderation and balance in all aspects of life, including one’s emotions.

So what was happiness for the ancient Greeks?

You probably won’t like the answer, because they thought it was a menace to society. Happiness and euphoria, along with any other strong emotions, had no place in civilized company.

In fact, strong emotions were considered so undesirable that experiencing or showing them was acceptable in very few situations. For example, during certain religious ceremonies and festivals like the Bacchanals, people were allowed and encouraged to experience euphoria. Even though this wasn’t the sole purpose of such festivals, they provided a temporary outlet, a chance to release strong emotions. Otherwise, people were expected to live in moderation and maintain emotional balance.

So strong was the ancient Greeks’ desire to achieve a balanced mindset that they invented collective therapy through drama. During religious festivals, they would put on plays that had the dedicated purpose of cleansing society of violence.

Some of these plays were the infamous tragedies and, like their name came to suggest, they featured tragic events and emotional turmoil. They were meant to cleanse society of violent impulses through an emotional release process called catharsis. They typically featured serious crimes, and the idea was that if you witnessed the violent tendencies inherent in human nature in a play you’d be repulsed and refrain from being violent yourself in real life.

The desired outcome of all these efforts was achieving a balanced life. A city where law and order ruled was considered a great city. The happiness of individuals mattered little compared to that.

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2. In Search of the Unattainable: The Middle Ages

Moving forward in history, we transition to the medieval age, a period characterized by religious devotion, feudalism, and the search for salvation. Happiness, as commonly understood, took a backseat to spiritual fulfillment and the hope of eternal bliss.

Medieval society was torn apart by wars, Crusades, and significant and often violent migrations and invasions by the Vikings, Mongols, Germanic tribes, Slavic populations, and others. The main institutions that held power in this age were the church and the monarchy.

Around 1,000 AD, the idea that this earthly life was meant for suffering and atonement was popularized. Happiness, in this context, was seen as something to be experienced in the next life rather than the present one.

In accordance with this perspective, experiencing happiness during this life came to be regarded with suspicion or even guilt. The purpose of life was viewed as a journey of atonement, and individuals believed they were inherently unworthy of happiness.

The unattainable quality of happiness was mirrored in the concept of courtly love.

A knight dedicated his triumphs to a lady of his choice, and watched over her from a distance. The lady was not required to be aware of or respond to the knight’s feelings as courtly love was often unrequited.

Still, flamboyant gestures of valor or loyalty were often part of the rituals of courtly love. However, everything was limited to symbolism and metaphor, and physical gestures of affection were completely absent from the concept of courtly love. This absence of physicality is in agreement with the shift towards spiritual purity in the religious beliefs of the time.

In literature, the chief preoccupation of knights was the quest for the ever unreachable Holy Grail. The pursuit of noble and virtuous acts took precedence over achieving personal happiness. Knights sought to fulfill their duties and achieve spiritual enlightenment.

Literary works like the Arthurian Legends, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales employed allegorical tales to convey moral and spiritual lessons to the audience. They provide us with a lasting legacy of the medieval ethos and allow us to better understand morality and happiness during that time.

The pursuit of happiness in medieval times was centered around spirituality and the afterlife. Qualities like piety, valor, and loyalty overshadowed individual happiness. The medieval worldview emphasized that true happiness could only be attained through adherence to religious doctrines and strict moral principles, and even then it was to be experienced in the afterlife.

Consequently, the defining quality of happiness in the Medieval Age was the fact that it was unattainable. It was something to strive towards, always hovering over the horizon, never to be reached.

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3. Polymaths and the Quest for Knowledge: The Renaissance

Emerging from the gloom of the Middle Ages is a transformative era: the Renaissance.

This age brought about the advent of humanism and the resurgence of ancient values like the appreciation of beauty and the pursuit of knowledge and virtue. The rediscovery of ancient philosophy and literature played a significant role in shaping these ideals.

These values provided a strong counterpoint to the medieval worldview. And, together with a relatively more stable society made possible by fewer and less violent invasions and migrations, they produced an age of contradictions and contrasts.

The emergence of Protestantism, with its emphasis on personal faith and the rejection of certain practices of the Catholic Church, introduced new perspectives on happiness and morality. Protestant reformers emphasized the primacy of faith, the individual’s direct relationship with God, and the need for personal salvation to the detriment of institutionalized worship. Consequently, their views on happiness and moral expectations often differed from those of the Catholic Church and traditional religious authorities. They emphasized the importance of personal piety, inner devotion, and a simpler way of life.

Interestingly, the medieval age had also promoted the values of piety and devotion. However, the Renaissance brings a significant change in the flow of ideas.

In medieval times, the Church had played a central role in shaping the religious and moral framework of society. Adherence to religious doctrines was expected and enforced. By contrast, during the Renaissance, these values were embraced and promoted by individuals, by the proponents of the Reformation. They were presented in opposition to the Church’s views.

Instead of having an established institution impose its ideas, individuals came up with their own arguments instead.

The advent of humanism

This reversal in the flow of ideas would have been impossible without humanism. This philosophical and intellectual movement emphasized the importance of human reason, individualism, and the potential for human achievement. It sought to reconcile the wisdom of the classical world, particularly that of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, with Christian teachings. Humanists believed in the pursuit of knowledge, the cultivation of virtues, and the realization of human potential. All of these were seen as integral to attaining happiness.

In this context, the pursuit of happiness was often viewed through the lens of religious morality. While humanist ideas celebrated the potential for individual fulfillment and achievement, the Protestant movement emphasized the need for personal righteousness, the renunciation of worldly desires, and the avoidance of sinful behavior.

This tension between humanist ideals, religious doctrine, and moral expectations influenced the understanding and pursuit of happiness in the Renaissance.

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The Pursuit of Happiness Through the Ages: To Be Continued…

I intend to add details on more periods of time until we reach the present.

Check back to see if the next installment is online or subscribe to my newsletter and I’ll let you know.

What about the pursuit of happiness today?

Like I mentioned in the introduction, this analysis of the understanding of happiness in Western culture during various ages was prompted by the desire to counterbalance the prevalent take on happiness today. That is, the belief that we are meant to experience happiness and there is something wrong with us if we aren’t constantly happy.

I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with searching for happiness or desiring to be happy. However, I do think that we could do without transforming our pursuit of happiness into a source of anxiety and pain.

This is why I think being aware of our historical and cultural inheritance is relevant. I believe an awareness of the shifts in thinking patterns throughout history is essential to better understand our own ways of thinking and idiosyncrasies.

Moreover, our cultural inheritance includes complex and contrasting takes on happiness.

In keeping with the literary references, we can tie things up in an interesting tapestry. Many of the works created in these past ages are still present in the Western cultural landscape today. Ancient tragedies and myths as well as Christian ethics are especially intertwined with the stories we tell ourselves today, as they are present through the many reinterpretations and re-writings they’ve been subjected to across all later ages.

The good news is that, having so many perceptions of happiness, we can choose whatever best resonates with us or even discard them all and create our own interpretations. But we need to be aware of these in order to evaluate and make our choices. Otherwise, we’re just swept by the tide of the current zeitgeist.

The Pursuit of Happiness Through the Ages - The Weaver of Stories

The pursuit of happiness has constantly changed along with cultural norms and perspectives, and it will likely continue to do so.

Don’t get stuck in the mainstream perspective of today. You can decide how you conceptualize happiness for yourself and create an environment that fosters it.

If you need help in figuring out what happiness means for you, I’m always willing to lend a helping hand. I’ve written a more extensive article on how we construe happiness today that you can read. And you can always sign up for a free consultation to learn more about my Story-Based Coaching for Real Life Quests service, or email me with a question and I’ll try my best to answer it for you.

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