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Happiness

I once claimed that people were happier in the Middle Ages than they are now. I no longer make that claim, but I do not make the inverse claim, rather I choose not to claim that I can judge the happiness of other people. Experience has shown me that different people manifest their happiness, or their unhappiness, differently. Some very emotional people cry often, yet they are not really unhappy. Others might smile continually, but it is a show to mask their real sorrow. This article does not claim to judge the happiness of other people, yet it will attempt to show that people in the Middle Ages could have been much happier than people are today, and it will endeavor to explain why. Keep in mind that this web page should have some practical applications, that-is-to-say if you apply some of what it says to your own lives, then you might live better and be happier.

Sadness is caused by loss. If you have something and lose it, then you will be saddened. If you never had something, then not having it will not make you sad. Moderns were optimistic, whereas Medievals were not. Optimists expect things to improve. Many things did improve during the Modern Age, and so Moderns had good reason to be happy, but things did not always improve. The line of progress moved up as time passed, but it was not a straight line. There were moments when the line bent and went down temporarily. The stock market is a good, easily quantifiable example. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, which is the measure of the performance of the biggest corporations in America and therefore represents the entire U.S. economy, has risen from under $100 in 1900 to about $12,000 today, which means that $1 invested in 1900 would be worth $120 today. Even after inflation is factored out, that is very profitable. There were many years, and even some decades, however, in which the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined, so that people who invested money in the stock market actually lost. The stock market crashed in 1929 and it took about twenty-five years to rise back to where it had been before the crash. The stock market was lower at the end of the decade 2000-2009 than it had been at the beginning. When people lose money, or anything else, they are saddened. Therefore, even though life improved in many ways during the Modern period, there were moments of sorrow because of temporary losses.

People in the Middle Ages were sometimes sad because sometimes they lost those whom they loved. Husbands were sad when their wives died in childbirth. Mothers were sad when their children died from diseases or starvation. Nobles were sad when they lost battles. Clerics were sad when they saw the people around them sinning, which was a type of loss because it meant that their efforts to sanctify the world had failed. Despite the presence of sadness in the Middle Ages, it can be believed that there was more sadness in the Modern Age because of expectations. In the Middle Ages, people were sad only when they lost what they actually had. In the Modern Age, however, people were saddened by losing what they expected to have. If someone invests in the stock market, for example, he expects to profit. If his stock goes down, then he loses, but even if his stock does not change in value and so he does not lose money, yet still he can be sad because he loses the profits that he had expected to gain. If a worker expects a promotion and does not get it, then he is saddened at the loss, even though in the end he is in the same situation as he was at the beginning. The Modern Age was full of expectations. People were virtually wealthy. For every investor, there was the possibility of getting rich, but few investors did. For every worker in a large business, there was the possibility of rising to the top of the company, but very few of them did. For every student, there was the possibility of attaining greatness in a field of study, getting a doctorate degree, and gaining renown in that field, but few students attained such greatness. For artists – actors, actresses, writers, painters, musicians, etc. – there was the possibility of wealth and fame, but most failed and ended up working in some other industry. In personal relationships also, especially at the end of the Modern Period and the beginning of the Post-Modern Period, people had high expectations. It was thought normal to ‘fall in love’ with a ‘soul-mate’, then live happily ever after with that person, but the divorce rate in the United States is over fifty percent, and other Western Countries are similar, though in some of them it is more common for married couples to commit adultery frequently than to get divorced. Moderns expected much out of life, and when they did not get it they were saddened and therefore not happy. In the Middle Ages, on the other hand, people did not expect much out of this earthly life. They knew that life is tough, and painful, and short. They enjoyed simple pleasures, and hoped for Heaven.

More than anything else, the thing that makes me think Medievals might have been happier than people today are, is this: preachers during the Middle Ages warned against becoming too happy on this Earth. Hope for Heaven is a Theological virtue, but people do not Hope for Heaven if they are content on this Earth. I have read much that was written during the Middle Ages and I noticed that in many of the writings there is a call for penance, for purification, to a detachment from this world because life in this world is so good and beautiful that it could possibly cause a person to not Hope for Heaven. Today, on the other hand, preachers rarely talk about penance. Today, much of religion is about making people feel good because it is assumed that they normally feel bad.