Finally a new post that isn’t Thankful Thursday. This is a bit of a depature from my regular posts, so I’ll hope you bear with me here.
Seeing that we recently celebrated Independence Day here in United States, many of my Facebook friends have and are posting patriotic pictures, quotes, and sentiments this week. One in particular posted this excerpt from The Declaration of Independence
“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.”
It is a phrase I’ve heard over and over again in my lifetime, but there was something about that last bit – the pursuit of Happiness part – that did not quite sit well with me.
We live in a time that seems to celebrate the self-centered and the over-pampered, a time where “it’s all about me” is so commonplace and accepted, and where people seem to chase down everything and anything in an endless search for validation in the name of chasing happiness that I cannot imagine that this is what our forefathers had in mind. As I puttered around the house on my odd middle of week day off, I pondered a few questions. What follows are the thoughts I had throughout the day.
Is Happiness a Right?
The men who crafted this document were quite smart in their word choice. “Pursuit of Happiness” implies that everyone is entitled to go after it, but it does not imply that we are always going to obtain it. The pursuit is our right, not the happiness.
Pursuit requires effort. It is active. It requires deliberate action. In today’s culture of entitlement, it is an important distinction to make. Especially since most pursuits are not always successful on the first try. Pursuits can be ongoing. They may even require sacrifice.
What unsettles me is the extent to which many people take that right of pursuit. Just because you have the right to pursue what makes you happy, does it entitle you to do so at the expense of others? If we are entitled to life, liberty and the “pursuit,” then it stands to reason that everyone else is too. Your right to pursue happiness is not more important than the lives, liberties, and the pursuits of others.
So in essence, we are entitled to our pursuits as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. It’s a package deal. There is a level of responsibility involved.
Is Happiness Captured or Chosen?
While “pursuit” should be defined further, it also bothers me in this context. It implies that happiness is external thing to be found in something or someone else: something to be captured and therefore controlled. Given it is external it can also be taken away, which sets us up to accept happiness as fleeting, fickle, and finite.
What we think will make us happy doesn’t always do so, but advertisers spend millions each year to convince us otherwise. The next promise is always around the corner until the desired “thing” loses its luster. Then we are left feeling empty, which drives us to try to fill the void. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
I also feel rather unsettled by the idea happiness being predicated on external objects or people. If my happiness is solely based on someone else, it puts a lot of pressure on that person and limits their freedom, not to mention instills fear in me if that person needs latitude in the relationship.
Considering all that I have lost, a spouse and pregnancies, I don’t think I could have survived if I purely based my happiness on any of them.
Rather, what if happiness is intrinsic? Much like Dorothy in “Wizard of Oz”, is the power to be happy something we’ve had inside of us all along?
Consider Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, who devoted his life to studying and understanding “meaning” in life. In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he shares this observation:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances – to choose one’s own way.”
Doesn’t make more sense to view happiness as a choice?
Is Happiness the Right Word Choice?
If we accept the premise that the capacity for happiness is inside of us, what where our forefathers referring to in the Declaration of Independence? Because pursing “happiness” as we understand it today seems like a nebulous thing.
Whenever I talk to Hubs about what he wants for Skid. He always says that he wants Skid to be “happy.” This never sits well with me because it is hazy to define at best. How do you get to happy? It certainly cannot be accomplished by chasing down the child’s every whim or giving them everything they say want.
This certainly does not instill character or a sense of accomplishment. Who defines happy in this scenario? What does it look like? How is it measured?
I’ve always felt that raising capable and well-balanced children versus coddled, satiated children is better in the long run. The former requires that the parent accept that some amount of unhappiness is bound to be experienced by the child in order for him or her to build a strong personal foundation from which to grow.
When I was a child I could not have envisioned the losses and challenges my life had in store for me. Neither could my parents. Yet the foundation they laid down for me has helped me weather major losses and ongoing challenges. To give me that foundation required quite a few decisions may have temporarily denied me happiness, but allowed me to develop the coping skills necessary to deal with disappointment, setbacks, loss, and pain.
So I’m convinced that happiness, as least in terms of having one’s desires fulfilled, is not the best word choice here. So what are other words that better fit? I think of the many times after graduating college I heard people say, “Follow your bliss” or “Find your passion.” Again, both are alternate ways to say “pursing happiness.” But I cannot shake the feeling that we need delve deeper and draw the line between “happy” as a temporary state of euphoria and “happy” as an overall state of “well-being.” From here we can build a foundation.
I’m drawn to the idea that there needs to be a balance – a bridge between our internal need for validation and a sense of relating to that which is external to us. The happiness we pursue is maybe best exchanged with the word “purpose.” The word purpose denotes that we will have an impact on the world around us and a reason for being that lies beyond ourselves. We exist for more than just our needs – we are here to serve something beyond ourselves. It’s a very inspiring and humbling thought.
What Does Pursuit of Happiness Mean to Me?
Considering all these things of course led me down the rabbit hole of discovering what this all means to me. As I write this, I have a very heavy heart because I thought my purpose was motherhood. I truly believed that it would make me happy and fulfilled. But now that I know that I cannot have children of my own, so I must now reconsider that belief. Life has called me in another direction. It is at once exhilarating and intimidating.
What Does It Mean to You?
I would not be truly American if I were not to invite you to engage in discourse on the subject. What does “Pursuit of Happiness” mean to you? Are you actvely pursuing your bliss? Are you seeking opportunities to fufill your purpose? Have you discovered your purpose? Or is life just happening? Please share your thoughts on this subject.