“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Norman Rockwell painted some of the most iconic images of 20th-century America. His paintings, such as Rosie the Riveter and the Four Freedoms series from World War II, and The Problem We All Live With and Murder in Mississippi from the civil-rights movement, were intended to evoke the best in people who saw them: hope, solidarity, courage, justice—but most of all, happiness. The bulk of his work captured scenes of lighthearted joy. Consider Shiner, which depicts a young girl with a black eye, sitting outside the principal’s office with a grin that tells you she has just been the victor in combat.
I have seen these paintings my whole life, starting with my grandfather’s beloved, dog-eared coffee-table book of Rockwell’s greatest works. A printing-press operator in Longview, Washington, my grandfather was no art connoisseur. But he gave this assessment of Rockwell: “These pictures make me feel happy.”
And yet, Rockwell himself struggled with happiness. In 1953, he moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a bucolic town in the Berkshires—not for its natural beauty and peace but because it happened to be the home of a psychiatric hospital where he and his wife could receive treatment for chronic depression. There, he was a patient of the world-famous psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, with whom Rockwell racked up a therapy bill so large that he had to accept commissions for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes magazine ads.