Monday, August 25, 2008

The Pursuit of Happiness

Do you ever notice how so many people in this country are preoccupied with the concept of happiness? People spend tons of money on therapists and self-help books in an attempt to find the key to happiness for themselves. And how many times have you heard a parent say of his or her child, "I don't care what little Elmer does with his life, as long as he's happy." (Well, maybe not Elmer, because no one really names their kid Elmer nowadays, but you get the point.) I suppose all this focus on happiness shouldn't come as any big surprise, though, in light of the fact that the Declaration of Independence names "the pursuit of happiness" among our inalienable rights as American citizens.

The thing that has struck me a lot lately is that, in the United States as of the year 2008, we seem to have taken the "pursuit" part of this particular inalienable right more seriously than the "happiness" part. I get the distinct feeling that, for many people, "trying to be happy" has become more important than actually being happy. If you claim that you are happy but you admit that you have not spent some time and effort trying to achieve happiness, people in this country will tend to doubt your veracity.

I chased after happiness for many years, like it was some elusive animal that I had to hunt down and trap all by myself if I wanted to have it. Then one day I stopped chasing, not so much because I thought chasing was a bad approach as because I just got too darned tired to keep going. In a moment of particular weariness, I told whatever key-to-happiness theory was rattling around in my brain at the time to please hush. At first I felt like a failed pursuer of happiness, but what happened next was amazing. When I stopped trying to be happy, I realized that the potential for happiness had been there all along, but I had been too busy reading self-help books to see it. When I stopped trying to be happy, I actually was able to be happy. I now am convinced that it really is that easy -- happiness is available at any time, and you can choose it or not, as you wish.

If simply choosing to be happy works so much more effectively than running around in circles trying to find happiness somewhere outside yourself, then why don't more people follow that route? Certainly there are several major industries that spend a lot of time, money, and energy trying to convince us that we can't really find happiness unless we buy their books, products, and services, which purportedly contain all the answers. But the underlying question is why, as a society, do we believe them when they tell us that?

Those of us who comprise American society seem to be plagued by the idea that we as individuals are not really OK as we are; instead, we seem to think that we first need to acquire some thing or some experience that we currently lack, or otherwise somehow adjust ourselves, as a prerequisite to being OK. Now combine that with the prevalent American belief that all the things that are worth having, including all the things that we believe we need for making-ourselves-OK purposes, are not freely available but rather must be earned through some amount of work. Now layer on top of all that the American tendency to want whatever it is that we want right now, which causes us to try out anything that is billed as a short-cut. And we are willing to try multiple short-cuts until we find the short-cut that works. With all these parts of our collective psyche going at the same time, it really is no wonder that as a country we pursue happiness in the particular way that we do, trying to earn happiness by testing out one magic-bullet theory after the other so that maybe, if we try, just hard enough, we can find the key to the happiness puzzle and declare ourselves happy and fixed.

What a pitiful lot we are sometimes, pursuing something that is there all along and that becomes more elusive the more we insist on working for it. I wonder if there will ever be a time when, as a society, we will internalize the notion that some of the best things in life really are free and there for the taking, and that we deserve them without having to somehow change ourselves first.


You know who said...

The exception, of course, was when you pursued me...and ever since you caught me I've been very happy :)

Reya Mellicker said...

Great post!

It's the one big mistake of the founding fathers ... well, in particular of Thomas Jefferson ... to put the pursuit of happiness into the Declaration.

I perceive happiness as an ephemeral, fleeting, momentary emotion - in and out as quick as the blink of an eye. I'm more interesting in developing activities and thought processes that are satisfying.

Adrianne said...

Reya, I suspect that my concept of "happiness" may be the same as your concept of "satisfaction." Ah, the nuances of the English language. . . .