And the Pursuit of Happiness…Maybe That’s the Problem?

July 5, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

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.



  1. Great post, Normal Dan! Would that people at large would take your closing thought experiment seriously. The pursuit of “stuff” as a path to happiness is indeed a chimera. Look at how many people in Latin American countries–even with all of their many problems–so frequently have higher “happiness scores” than people in the US. This is probably because they do so much better in the areas you mentioned… especially “community” and “family.” Whenever the issue of wealth and happiness come up, I am always reminded of Joseph Heller. When chided by a friend that some rich guy made more in a week than Heller did in his whole life, Heller responded that there was one thing he (Heller) had that the rich guy would never have… “What’s that?” Heller’s friend asked. Heller replied, “Enough.”

  2. Dan,

    I finished up Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” this morning. It’s the fifth time in five years that I’ve read the novella (I know because when I finish a book or story I always write down the date).Over the years I find myself returning to the tale again and again, as I do to most of Conrad’s work. I don’t know that the following passage (see below) is apposite to your posting. It seems so to me, though I’d bore you to death did I try to explain wny. I thought of your posting when I read the passage: will that do for an explanation?

    To set the stage a little: in this passage, near the conclusion of the story, Marlow, the primary narrator of the novel, has endured his trip into the heart of darknesss, both literally and metaphorically: he nearly dies of disease and he has many of his illusions about life shredded by his harrowing experiences.

    Afterwards, he is now back in Belgium, in Brussels, what he calls with good reason “the sepulchral city.” It is from Belgium that the monstrous evil occurring in the Congo, all of it done of course in the name of civilization, is directed, every horror perpetrated in a desire to extirpate savagery and replace it with bright enlightenment, though in fact the real reason, no matter the pretense, is simple greed to plunder the land. Here’s the passage:

    . . . I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretence, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew. Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend. I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficulty in restraining myself from laughing in their faces so full of stupid importance. I daresay I was not very well at that time. I tottered about the streets — there were various affairs to settle — grinning bitterly at perfectly respectable persons. I admit my behaviour was inexcusable, but then my temperature was seldom normal in these days. My dear aunt’s endeavours to ‘nurse up my strength’ seemed altogether beside the mark. It was not my strength that wanted nursing, it was my imagination that wanted soothing. . . .

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