Monday, August 15, 2011

The Pursuit of Happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
PreambleDeclaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, 
drafted by Thomas Jefferson

If you observe a really happy man you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under the radiator.
W. Beran Wolfe, How To Be Happy Though Human

I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be "happy." I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate. It is, above all, to matter and to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all.
Leo C. Rosten

Thomas Jefferson: The chief author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the United States' third President linked happiness to meaningful work and freedom to pursue just causes. "Our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits."
Credit: Rembrandt Peale [1778-1860]: 1800
Source: The White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

There are no limit on the number of books that look at happiness and how to attain it. And there are an equal number of buyers. It is without a doubt a growth industry, often linked to books on self-help or self-improvement. The pursuit of happiness is the chief goal of many if not most people, linked to a meaningful and fulfilling life. The fact that there are so many books on pursuing happiness, some spiritual, some religious, some practical, some serious speaks about a deep lack of happiness in people's lives. Or at least that's why such books exist—to make things better.

But such books are not being written by only pop psychologists and psychiatrists, whom one would suspect of putting out such books. Now, there are even serious academics who make a career of writing about happiness and well being. Take, for example, Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of positive psychology.

On his website, Authentic Happiness, Seligman defines authentic happiness as the sum of three parts: "The theory in Authentic Happiness is that happiness could be analyzed into three different elements that we choose for their own sakes: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. And each of these elements is better defined and more measurable than happiness."

In short, it's about the choices that we freely make and their influence on our well being. Here is an excerpt from Martin Seligman's  Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being:
Positive psychology, as I intend it, is about what we choose for its own sake. I chose to have a back rub in the Minneapolis airport recently because it made me feel good. I chose the back rub for its own sake, not because it gave my life more meaning or for any other reason. We often choose what makes us feel good, but it is very important to realize that often our choices are not made for the sake of how we will feel. I chose to listen to my six-year-old’s excruciating piano recital last night, not because it made me feel good but because it is my parental duty and part of what gives my life meaning.

Martin Seligman, Director of the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center & founder of positive psychology, says: "Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think."

Making Moral Choices

It's true that happiness can be linked to what kind of choices we make and how they affect us. Yet, there's more to the story, I suspect. It might be that the aggressive pursuit of happiness and the attaining of happiness are not one and the same. For people and a time overly focused on attainment and achievement, happiness is not really something that you can attain, like a new car, house, pet, or, even, spouse. It's more ethereal. It's more a state of mind that has everything to do with acceptance and humility, and nothing to do with avarice and aggressiveness. Happiness is furthest away from the person who thinks he can attain it by the mere use of money or power.

In a culture filled with endless consumer choices, where almost anything (and anybody) can be bought—it has been opined that everything and everybody has a price—happiness cannot. For if you try and buy it or get it through aggressive means, it's not happiness that you have attained. It's something else altogether.

Such is a point that W. Beran Wolfe makes in How To Be Happy Though Human. Beran, a student of Alfred Adler, proposed a society of mutual cooperation as most beneficial, published this work in 1932.
We are too prone to overlook the terrific costs of the wreck of the competitive system to individual and to State. The competitive system in life does not kill outright, as in the animal world, where its success is greater. Applied to human life it maims, it cripples, it makes dependent. It breeds crimes, perversion and insanity, the costs of which weigh heavily on victor and victim alike. (2)
 Of the three approaches to life that marks human decision making—placid indifference, an aggressive business approach, or the artistic vision, Beran Wolfe  says the last is the most human:
The third attitude toward life is the approach of the artist. Here the underlying philosophy is "what can I put into it?" (2)
Again, it's clear that making a moral choice to do something positive makes us happier. Now, I would like to return Thomas Jefferson and the "pursuit of happiness" clause in the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776), which might surprise some that it's not included in the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment: it lists the right of “life, liberty, and property."  Property rights are strongly protected, and rightly so, which means that the State or government agents cannot arbitrary take someone's property, as has historically been the case in non-democratic regimes.

Meaningful Work

Such might help explain the power of the prevailing American Dream, still resonant today, despite the recent setbacks with the housing bubble. Property ownership speaks of permanence, an ability to settle down and raise a family. (It is noteworthy that Jefferson was influenced by Epicurus, whose beliefs centre on knowledge, friendship, and living a virtuous and temperate life.)

But there's more to the story. In the 18th century, happiness also boiled down to an ability to earn a livelihood, or to work. Thus, in such views there should be no impediment in a person's ability to earn a living and take care of himself and family. Such raises an excellent and valid point. Besides the obvious monetary benefits, work can (and does) give a lot of meaning to one's life. The fact that the unemployment rate is so high in the U.S. explains the lack of hope and happiness that many feel at the moment. It is also the reason that governments want the unemployment rate to stay low.

Even so, happiness is also linked to giving and kindness, to love and hope, to beauty and music. And, lest we forget, to friendship and community, and the ability to freely pursue just causes. Many of these things are absent today from people's lives, and that explains, rather sadly, why so many settle for imitations of the authentic. In short, happiness might be more concrete than too many (pop) psychologists think. It might be more about friendship and family, meaningful work, making good choices, and living a moral, responsible and just life than about self indulgence, self-analysis, or positive thinking.


  1. The pursuit of freedom may not always lead to happiness, but the absense of freedom does lead to unhappiness.

  2. George:

    I couldn't agree more, and it's a point well accepted. Freedom is one of the fundamentals for happiness.


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