Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Un-Pursuit of Happiness

This is an old essay, which was also aired on WVTF public radio a year or so ago. Good times.

The Un-Pursuit of Happiness


In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson asserted that everyone was entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Note that last part: the pursuit of happiness...not happiness. Mr. Jefferson essentially promises us a wild goose chase; he does not promise that we will ever be happy, just that we have the right to give it our best shot. Or put another way, the wildly waddling goose never lays a golden egg but, to double my metaphors, is itself the golden egg.

Now, you may have trouble swallowing the idea that happiness can never be obtained and held like a little gilded treasure in the palm of your hand. After all, we have everything from sodas to televisions to prescription drugs to vacation packages promising us that happiness, yes HAPPINESS, can be ours with just one bite-sized charge on our credit cards—or an even more digestible payment plan. So bon appétit!

However, much as we celebrate the birthday of our country on July 4th, Independence Day, I believe that we can and should also celebrate our independence from the pursuit of happiness—that our life and our liberty are made stronger, more secure, when we base them upon an un-pursuit of “happiness,” however we define (or try to define) that state of mind and being.

Pursuit is a condition of restless activity, often frenetic energy and frustration, and so is the antithesis of contentment. For me, the best images of pursuing happiness are the nutty squirrels and their eternal onslaughts against my bird feeders. Let me tell you, neither side in this time-honored battle knows of true “happiness.” There is no peace; prisoners are not taken; there are no negotiations; there is no diplomacy; there are no treaties.

But if we can declare our independence from the pursuit of the idyllic ideal of happiness, then I believe we will find an endless storehouse of goodies waiting right at our paw-, er, fingertips. Why drive ourselves nuts trying to “find happiness”? Why worry ourselves into a panic attack by chanting, “Don’t worry, be happy!” like some mystical mantra? Why work ourselves into a sweat by running a marathon that only ends in some otherworldly state of bliss?

Instead, perhaps we can find happiness in the un-pursuit of happiness.

I mean, simply stop for a moment and really look at the way the sunlight sets a cardinal’s breast on fire. Pause for a moment and really feel how the bashful breeze caresses your skin on a summer day. Breathe deeply and appreciate the love that is shared in a friend’s hug, a stranger’s smile, a baby’s laugh….

We can be happy whether we have nothing or everything. We can be happy when the fireworks fade and the 5th of July dawns far too early. We need not pursue happiness. We need not seek some stealthy goose in order to pilfer its golden egg and bury it for safe keeping like those nutty, ingenious squadrons of little squirrels. We need not renounce what we own and who (we think) we are. We need not pursue happiness to be happy.

We are alive. We are at liberty. And, if we just realize these facts, then we may realize that we already are happy—standing right where we are, wherever we are.

Image credit: Jay Baldwin, from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons License.