The Voyage of Life

by Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole: Childhood

First painted in 1840, Thomas Cole’s great quadriptych The Voyage of Life serves as the leitmotif of The Happiness Curve. Currently on display at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the work is a masterpiece of visual storytelling, and it strikingly anticipates science’s latest discoveries about the effects of aging on happiness.

In the first painting, “Childhood,” a baby emerges carefree and coddled from the darkness of the womb, his Guardian Angel standing protectively nearby.

Thomas Cole: Youth

In the second painting, “Youth,” the Voyager, on the threshold of adulthood reaches ambitiously toward a vision of future glory and happiness. Now the angel stands further aloof, unseen by the traveler, and we can see what the young man does not: the way to the castle in the sky is a side path—the road not taken—and the river will veer toward rocks and rapids ahead.

Thomas Cole: Manhood

In the third painting, “Manhood,” the Voyager is in the prime of life, healthy and handsome in middle age, yet beset by rocks and rapids. His boat is battered, its rudder missing, and the angel hovers far out of view amid malevolent skies. The Voyager, eyes aloft, supplicates for an end to the turbulence but, unlike us, cannot see that calmer waters lie ahead.

Thomas Cole: Old Age

In the fourth and final painting, “Old Age,” the Voyager has emerged into the calm waters of his last years. His hourglass is gone because he is out of time, his once proud barque, like his body, is decrepit, yet finally he floats calmly and perceives his guardian spirit ushering him toward the happiness of the next world.