Is happiness always worth chasing?
In a surprising interview with Ellen DeGeneres last week, Caitlyn Jenner expressed some ambivalence about gay marriage. “I’m a traditionalist,” said Jenner, a former Olympian and member of the Kardashian clan, who has chronicled her transgender journey on her reality show, I Am Cait.
But Jenner acknowledged she’d come around on the issue. “I think, like a lot of people on this issue, I have really changed my thinking here to, ‘I don’t ever want to stand in front of anybody’s happiness.’”
Maybe Jenner—and the rest of us—should be willing to stand in the way of some people’s happiness some of the time. After all, we regularly depend on others to make decisions based on factors other than happiness. A dad doesn’t tend a baby who woke up for the tenth time that night because it makes him so happy to rock Junior to sleep yet again. A student doesn’t defend another student from bullies because it’s so exhilaratingly fun to stand up to a popular classmate.
We do things like that for other reasons: because we care about people, because we are responsible, because we value compassion and tolerance.
If life was just about the pursuit of basic happiness, we should be demanding the pharmaceutical industry produce the “soma,” the happy-producing drug, of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
As the Controller explains in that novel, “People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. . . . And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma.” If happiness is the most important good, well then . . . Controller for President.
But for most of us, there is an awareness that what makes us happy isn’t always what we should pursue or maybe even what we most want. You don’t have to be Christian to relate to St. Paul’s lament (Romans 7:19), “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do.” We’re conflicted regularly by our desires, by what makes us happy in the moment, and what seems most meaningful in the long-term.
To return to the case of the parent awakened by a baby in the night: We want sleep, sometimes desperately, but we also want our children to feel loved and cared for; as long as we’re alive we’ll be torn between the lesser and the greater good, between comfort and happiness in the moment and the kind of virtue that reminds us that our momentary happiness must sometimes be set aside for more important reasons.
There is a beautiful moment in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair when Sarah, a woman struggling between her burgeoning faith in Christianity (which forbids adultery) and her love for the man she is having an affair with, is talking to Richard Smythe, an atheist with a facial deformity she began seeing to try to curb her inclination toward faith.
“I shut my eyes and put my mouth against the cheek,” Sarah wrote in her diary. “I felt sick for a moment because I fear deformity, and he sat quiet and let me kiss him, and I thought I am kissing pain and pain belongs to You [God] as happiness never does. I love You in Your pain. . . . You let us be with You in pain.”
If happiness is our main objective, if only a pharmaceutical breakthrough prevents us from being the soma-popping denizens of a Brave New World, there is no room for an experience like Sarah’s, no understanding of how a longing for a connection with the divine can trump a longing to be happy and pain-free.
In recent years, we’ve had an intense debate over gay marriage, with supporters and critics debating everything from the nature of marriage to justice and equality to love. Caitlyn Jenner would be better served by looking at and weighing those arguments seriously than by claiming that people’s happiness is reason enough to favor one position over another.
Because ultimately a world where immediate happiness determines morality is a limited world: a cramped place where there’s little room for great love or transcendences or heroism. Regardless of one’s views on gay marriage, that isn’t a world anyone should herald.