“Swallowing sunshine is not at all difficult, and it works miracles of power, but some people are too lazy to do it,” wrote Unitarian Universalist clergyman Alden Eugene Bartlett in a 1918 guide to happiness. He advised, however, against swallowing too quickly. “If you have only been existing, half-dead,” he warned, “you will purify your blood so fast it will make you dizzy.”
First documented in the Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica Classic of the first or second century, the bark of the mimosa tree, known as he huan pi (“collective happiness bark”), is thought to harmonize the emotions and render a person worry-free. The manual advises that “protracted taking may make the body light, brighten the eyes,” and induce one to feel “as if one had acquired whatever one desired.” Modern practitioners sometimes call it “herbal Prozac.”
Misfortune can cause a person unhappiness only when vice has already corrupted them, argued first-century Greek essayist Plutarch. “As a thread saws through the bone that has been soaked in ashes and vinegar, and as men bend and fashion ivory when it has been made soft and pliable by beer,” he wrote in a short piece collected in his Moralia, “so fortune, falling upon that which is of itself ill-affected and soft as the result of vice, gouges it out and injures it.”
The Talmud tells of a third-century rabbi named Joseph who died, saw a heavenly paradise, returned to life, and told his father of a world to come that would be “the reverse of this one—those who are on top here were below there, and vice versa.” “My son,” said his father, “you have seen a corrected world.”
Chinese Taoist philosophers Zhuangzi and Hui Shi took a walk on a bridge over the Hao River in the fourth century bc. “The minnows swim about so freely,” said Zhuangzi; “such is the happiness of fish.” Hui Shi responded, “You are not a fish, so whence do you know the happiness of fish?” “You are not I,” Zhuangzi replied, “so whence do you know I don’t know the happiness of fish?”
The Hindu Laws of Manu advises a ruler to act so that “his subjects thrill with joy in him as human beings do at the sight of the full moon.” In ancient times a king secured justice with the help of a divine Rod of Punishment. “Properly wielded,” the text explains, the rod “makes all the subjects happy; but inflicted without due consideration, it destroys everything.”
“It was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote of his failed 1965 master’s thesis in anthropology, in which he argued that the plots of stories, when graphed, conform to a set of standard patterns. “The apathy of the University of Chicago is repulsive to me. They can take a flying fuck at the moooooooooooooooon.”
President Herbert Hoover once praised a group of PR professionals. “You have taken over the job of creating desire,” he said, “and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines—machines which have become the key to economic progress.” It was 1928; the Great Depression began the following year.
“Even if WDW [Walt Disney World] is the HPOE [Happiest Place on Earth], it is still part of Earth,” legal scholar Lauren A. Newell wrote in a 2012 paper. “Occupants of WDW are not immune from inclement weather, technical malfunctions, hunger, fatigue, or any other source of unpleasantness that exists in life.”
Maurice Sendak, author of classic picture book Where the Wild Things Are, claimed in a 2011 interview never to lie to children. “I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence,” he said. He was also in search of a “yummy death,” which he believed could be done “if you’re William Blake and totally crazy.” Two months later, less than a year before he died, Sendak returned to the topic. “I’m a happy old man,” he said. “But I will cry my way all the way to the grave.”
In his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laërtius tells of Socrates’ disciple Aristippus, who “derived pleasure from what was present, and did not toil to procure the enjoyment of something not present.” Such opportunism was not widely admired; Aristippus was sometimes called “the king’s poodle.”
Not long before his death in 961, Umayyad caliph Abd al-Rahman III testified that over his fifty years of reign, during which “riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call,” he had “diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness.” Al-Rahman had counted only fourteen. “O man,” he lamented, “place not thy confidence in this present world!”
A late nineteenth-century concern for the nerve-racking speed of modern life prompted neurologist George Beard to introduce the term neurasthenia for a sickness whose symptoms include headaches, anxiety, impotence, insomnia, and lack of ambition. The condition was so prevalent in the United States that William James—who received the diagnosis along with his sister, Alice—referred to it as Americanitis.