Attempting to grab and hold onto “happiness” is like trying to maintain a grip on a greased pig. The pig will be the only participant to succeed. Irritated, slimy and thrashing, it’s determined to get free and be left alone.
When the founding fathers put that line in the Declaration of Independence about “…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” they inadvertently set up a false quest, “pursuing happiness.” That phrase is where most of us stopped reading and said, “Whoa! I’m all about happiness. Gimme some!”
However, “happiness” is simply a side effect, something unintended but inevitably experienced while doing or producing something else. That is, while we are engrossed in some unrelated activity that engages our mind and makes time pass unnoticed, we feel happy.
Those who strive consciously to pursue “happiness” often fume, heart sinking, about why that feeling evades them, and only restless emptiness remains. Shopping for products helps give us a buzz for an hour or a day, but then those goods are just hanging in the closet or boxed in the garage. A new car feels wonderful for a week or two, but then it becomes just another car. Fixing up a new house can keep us preoccupied perhaps for a year, but then we stand and blink and look around and realize it is just a house.
Then we do one of two things: unproductively, we wonder what’s next to preoccupy us, or we more fruitfully decide to dig deeper and question why we pursue happiness in the first place.
So what do we get from “pursuing happiness,” as the founding fathers asserted was our inalienable right? They meant “happiness” in a different way than our affluent society means it today. They believed that such a life meant living in community, and within a limited governing structure designed to secure order and promote each individual’s growth and freedom. Of course, their concern was only for white males to be able to live that way. Women and slaves were merely chattel, items of property. Funny why we are expected to revere the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution when they were written only to preserve white men’s freedoms.
Although “happiness” seemed a reasonable choice of words for the founding fathers, that word has led us down the primrose path to excess, self-centeredness and anxiety, often leaving us roaming in a neon-lit darkness. Inspirational author Roy T Bennett wrote, “If you are not grateful for what you already possess, what makes you think you will be happy with more?
Someone once wrote that the only constant happiness is curiosity. The more curious we are about people around us, and about the world beyond our skin, the more energy we’ll have, the more satisfaction and peace of mind we’ll feel, the more serenity we’ll experience.
Curiosity enlarges and nourishes our mind and spirit; it can lead us into several positive situations and states of mind. It can lead us to find work or begin hobbies that engage us. It can lead us to find someone or something to love unreservedly and unselfishly, for whom we would make sacrifices. Finally, it leads us toward hope, to belief in a positive future.
Meaningful work, unselfish love, positive hopes: such activities and commitments transform us, move us from being outward looking (feeling envy and restlessness, seeking recognition and material goods and entertainments and more social stature) toward an inner state of gratitude and humility. Our confused lives move away from tangled complexity toward simplicity and acceptance.
American mythology includes a reverential attitude toward competition, and gives far less emphasis to cooperation. We’re rugged individuals, rivals who urge our kids to get in there and fight on the soccer field, get into the best schools, compete for the CEO’s job. (I know there are many exceptions to this, but the nation’s DNA definitely is as described, and much of the rest of the world understandably sees us as sort of nuts.)
In as much as excessive competition separates and makes us distrustful, cunning and self-aggrandizing, it misses the mark for “happiness.” Rather, it is cooperation through acts of kindness and generosity that give us a sense of well-being, of having a meaningful life involved in something larger than our own gratification.
Perhaps the greatest “happiness” settles upon us when, by living and thinking in certain ways, we don’t seek “happiness” anymore. We finally grasp that it’s an incidental by-product of the way we’ve chosen to spend our days on Earth.