Pleasure and Prudence: A Look at Happiness from Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet

There are four go to books that I like to reread every couple of years: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.



I just finished the latter and found some words of wisdom concerning happiness shared by the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet.

Keep Expectations Low

Elizabeth’s feelings are described after Wickham’s departure from Meryton.

Upon the whole, therefore, she found, what has been sometimes found before, that an event to which she had looked forward with impatient desire, did not in taking place, bring all the satisfaction she had promised herself. It was consequently necessary to name some other period for the commencement of actual felicity; to have some other point on which her wishes and hopes might be fixed, and by again enjoying the pleasure of anticipation, console herself for the present, and prepare for another disappointment.

Elizabeth laments that her dear sister Jane would not be accompanying her on a tour of the Lakes and hints that lowering her expectations of her trip will shield her from the greatest disappointment.

     “But it is fortunate,” thought she, “that I have something to wish for. Were the whole arrangement complete, my disappointment would be certain. But here, by carrying with me one ceaseless source of my regret in my sister’s absence, I may reasonably hope to have all my expectations of pleasures realized. A scheme of which every part promises delight, can never be successful; and general disappointment is only warded off by the defence of some little peculiar vexation.”

Studies have found some truth to this. Dr. Robb Rutledge published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences his investigation into happiness and reward. A group of 26 subjects played a gambling game and after each wager reported their happiness and the neural activity in the area of the brain where dopamine is projected was monitored by a MRI device.

The study’s conclusion found that accumulated wealth was not a predictor of happiness, but instead that moment to moment happiness depended on recent history of rewards and expectations. Lowering our expectations can heighten our appreciation of the reward or outcome, and that is different from having no expectations, as Dr. Rutledge cautions us not to be too pessimistic and states that happiness can certainly be derived from looking forward to an event.

This accords with Gretchin Rubin’s four stages of happiness: anticipate it, savor it, express it, and recall it.  She reminds us that unhappy people don’t have fewer happy experiences as happy people, they just think about them less. Psychologist Barry Schwartz says it is work to be happy as it is acknowledged that about half of our happiness is derived from our genes, 10% from life events and things we cannot control, and about 40% is attributed to how we spend our time and how we chose to interpret our experiences.

It is all a matter of managing expectations and practicing gratitude.

I really like this related wisdom expressed by the Catepillar in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, “To feel big and contented, look down more gratefully and up less longingly. And to feel small but ambitious, look down less gratefully and up more longingly.”

Reminisce about the Good, Forget the Bad

Elizabeth Bennet shares another insight with Darcy near the end of the novel when they are reminiscing over the candid and painful letter Darcy scribed to her. Elizabeth remarks:

     “The letter, perhaps, began in bitterness, but it did not end so. The adieu is charity itself. But think no more of the letter. The feelings of the person who wrote, and the person who received it, are now so widely different from what they were then, that every unpleasant circumstance attending it, ought to be forgotten. You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.”

Pleasure is Fleeting

There is a difference between pleasure and happiness. One is more a momentary feeling and the latter a state of mind or even a skill that requires effort and time. In several readings I am reminded that our pursuit of happiness shall not be soley focused on individual pursuits of pleasure and endless gratification of desires, but should take into consideration the happiness and wellbeing of others. The smiles and laughter stemming from pleasure activities eventually wears off. In contrast happiness provides the capacity to be resilient in dark and stressful times. Philip Chard, a psychotherapist, writes that happiness grows from self-acceptance, living for something greater than one’s self, giving to others, having intimate relationships, and a realistically optimistic attitude.

In the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Austen bestowed on us a great model for this state of being. She embodies intelligence, energy, and resiliency. After Lizzy finds out that her Uncle’s work will curtail their itinerary to visit the Lakes, her disappointment is very great.  However she does not dispair or remain gloomy as we are told of her disposition, “But is was her business to be satisfied–and certainly her temper to be happy; and all was soon right again.”

Elizabeth is authentic to herself and often speaks her mind when it was not socially acceptable to do so as a woman in the 19th century. Her character is remarkable for her rejection of arranged marriages to solidify social class and land holdings and for her conviction that a happy marriage is founded in love. Lastly, she is deeply loyal to those she loves. Her dedication to her sister is illustrated by her tramp across the countryside in poor weather to care for Jane while she is ill and holed up at the Netherfield estate and then later on by her fierce defense of Jane’s character to Darcy.

     “To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ancles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to me to shew an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.” exclaims Miss Bingley, to which Mr. Charles Bingley remarks, “It shews an affection for her sister that is very pleasing.”

For all these qualities there is little doubt to her being as Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra about her protaganist, “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print.”


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