"I am certainly the most fortunate creature that ever existed!" cried Jane. "If I could but see you as happy! If there were but such another man for you!"
"If you were to give me forty such men, I never could be so happy as you. Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness."
(Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
Among all of Austen's strange ideas, this is the one that must be strangest to her twenty-first century readers. That someone's happiness must be dependent upon his character, irrespective of the accidents of history which it produces? That it is not the circumstances of one's life but the disposition of one's soul that determines happiness?
An opinion piece in last week's Time magazine suggested that it was unsurprising and unproblematic that studies show childless couples and empty nesters to be happier than parents in the midst of childrearing. It is normal, the author suggested, to be happier when relieved of burdens and able to pursue one's wishes unencumbered by dependents. Children are a burden, he says--no use pretending otherwise. Sure, they give a certain sublime pleasure to their parents, but those pleasures are few and far between, and easily overwhelmed by the unpleasantness of caretaking.
What a self-absorbed view! What a shallow experience of happiness! I can feel pity for those parents for whom the demands of caretaking are so overwhelming that moments of joy are not possible. And I can feel nothing but awe for those parents who find joy in caring for children who will never attain independence and "full" adulthood, who will always be in need of care.
But what about those unexceptional cases represented by these studies--the "normal" parents of "normal" children, who appear to equate happiness with freedom from burdens, from inconveniences, from dependents and caring? In short, from difficulty of any kind? I suspect that Austen is right (and she takes her cue here from the ancients: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas)--that it takes a certain moral fiber to be able to be truly happy. And that moral fiber, if one has it, allows for, or rather produces, happiness irrespective of the immediate presence of pleasure and the absence of pain.
In another book, one of her heroines experiences a moment of joy that is too intense for celebration--she describes it as rather solemn and sobering. Those who have had such moments should not be able to mistake pleasantness for happiness. Perhaps the best reading to be given the studies referenced in the Time opinion piece is that those who were polled failed to distinguish between the two.
But how sad, nonetheless.