And the Pursuit of Happiness…Maybe That’s the Problem?July 5, 2011
Fourth of July weekend 2011 is history, and America is back to work this morning. A little tired, a little elated, yesterday’s grilled meats repeating on us a bit, maybe a little hung over. Our patriotic orgy, complete with countless fireworks displays, is over with and we are back to the day to day task of living (at least it’s a short week, tomorrow is already hump day!) And what does our day to day living entail? Well, according to all of the speeches and recitations we endured over the weekend, we are back to the daily grind called “…the pursuit of happiness.” That is how our Declaration of Independence describes it, and that is how we patriotic Americans like to conceive it.
Now, all this talk about the pursuit of happiness has rung a few bells and got me thinking. In the past few years I have been reading a number of books about the pursuit of happiness, especially existential psychiatrist Ron Leifer’s book The Happiness Project (Snow Lion, 1997) and along with that a book by lawyer/journalist Gretchen Rubin of the same title (HarperCollins, 2009). These are very different books, but they have a key idea in common, an idea also at the root of a couple of books by social psychologist Barry Schwartz, The Costs of Living (Norton, 1994) and The Paradox of Choice (Harper Perennial, 2005). And this is the idea that happiness, if it is to be achieved, cannot be aimed at directly. It can only come as a byproduct of other pursuits. We experience happiness reflectively, in the rearview mirror of life so to speak. If we focus on achieving happiness as our goal, we will never really get there because we will never be able to say “enough.” This point is made clear in Rubin’s book. She recognized that in every important area of her life, she had achieved it all in superlatives: successful family, successful marriage, super career, plenty of money, social standing and respect, the very most that an Upper East Side lifestyle has to offer. Yet she found herself naggingly dissatisfied and anxious. Ron Leifer, drawing on Buddhist and existential sources, points out that there is a direct connection between the many ways we pursue happiness–being motivated by the urge to satiate desires–and the Buddhist notion of the causes of suffering. Barry Schwartz draws on sociological and psychology research to suggest that in a market-based society in which all “good” is gradually reduced to creation and possession of material wealth, our pursuit of happiness increasingly undermines the very social environment (of community, ecology, family and a healthy commonweal) that support human happiness.
Maybe, then, the “pursuit of happiness” is a misplaced goal in the American ideology. Of course, the Declaration of Independence is what it is–we cannot amend it, as we can (thank God!) the Constitution. But we can do interpretive thought experiments with it. Presently, just about the only interpretation allowed is that pursuit of happiness equals pursuit of property. And granted, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of property” is exactly John Locke’s original phrase, which was being pondered in Thomas Jefferson’s mind as he wrote The Declaration. However, as the rising chorus of voices like that of Gretchen Rubin is making clear, we have taken the pursuit of property pretty much to a dead end. Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand have not turned out to be very faithful travel guides.
How about if, for a moment, we pondered this as an interpretation, just as an entertaining 5th of July thought experiment:
We hold these Truths of be self evident, that all people are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain Inalienable Rights, among which are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Community, Ecology, Family, and a healthy Commonwealth.