Even as a Canadian, it’s easy to admire the “pursuit of happiness” being explicitly acknowledged in America’s Declaration of Independence. On its face the phrasing is a bit awkward, though. It reads like a bit of legalese meant to obscure unsavory terms, like the phrases “batteries not included” or “some assembly required.” A cynic might see it as an attempt to coerce would-be Americans into supporting the rebellion. On further contemplation, however, it’s suggestive of a quirk in human psychology: namely that the trappings of happiness aren’t in and of themselves enough to bring it to fruition.
The truth is, happiness is only in part pursuit; the remainder comes down to mentality.
It’s worthwhile to occasionally recalibrate our perspectives on our own situation. Historically, the typical existence for any given member of our species has been fairly bleak. If you were to reshuffle the numbers on the life lottery and play again, your most likely draw would be illiterate Pleistocene hunter gatherer with an average life expectancy of around thirty years. The only saving grace in the happiness department for that scenario would be that you’d be too busy trying not to die to even contemplate it. Still, at least those poor souls got to be sapient. Most of the creatures that have ever existed didn’t have the wherewithal to contemplate anything. So, if you’re reading this, you are among the most privileged beings to have ever walked the earth.
Given that fact, how likely is it that your happiness rests principally on perfecting your circumstances? The people we’re inclined to envy most—those who appear to have it all, and to have it all together—don’t tend to be paragons of contentment. In many cases they’re more neurotic than the rest of us; leaning on that very dissatisfaction to fuel their pursuits. Many of them reach the summit only to realize the thing they were counting on to fill the cavity in their soul isn’t fit for the task. I can only imagine what it would be like to have your every dream fulfilled and to still find yourself underwhelmed.
As someone who grew up poor and made it to the middle class, I can somewhat comprehend this feeling. Our goalposts tend to shift in accordance with our station; in some sense we’re all the donkey chasing a carrot on a string. A decade ago, many of us without a second thought would have traded places with Johnny Depp or Amber Heard, for all the riches and glamor and wonderful lives we would have assumed they enjoy without downside.
But, as they say, “ignorance is bliss.” Or, is it?
The aforementioned proverb comes from the last stanza of “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” by Thomas Gray. In it, Gray laments the loss of his childhood obliviousness to the profound ways he would one day come to suffer. The aphorism is only a partial truth though. What this perspective misses is that what differentiates the blissful from the rest of us is simply that they are not as compulsively self-deprecating or creative when it comes to narrating their own tragedies. This can indeed stem from ignorance, but it would be unwise for any of us to consider attempting to alleviate our suffering by way of one of its chief sources.
The more propitious path to Nirvana is through the achievement of mental equanimity. This begins by recognizing that we have more control over our perceptions than we do our circumstances. For every aspect of your life, there is at least one justifiable way to feel about it. If you really want to influence your circumstances, the only way to do so reliably is by forming a realistic image of your situation—one that is untainted by denial or hyperbole. Only then is it possible to plot a path from where we are to where we want to be.
Still, we should be willing to accept that much—maybe most—of that navigation problem is beyond our control. The ancient stoics understood our efforts are best spent at the margins; the Serenity Prayer speaks to this recognition.
Truthfully, we weren’t designed by evolution to be satisfied. In fact, evolution’s poster child is Genghis Khan, not the Buddha. Roughly one in 200 men are directly descended from Khan, whereas Buddha left only a single offspring. Relentlessly chasing satisfaction seems to be a quixotic effort. If you pay close attention to your moment-to-moment experience, you may come to notice the default state of our mind is discontentment. One should expect this, since dissatisfaction is the necessary precondition for goal seeking.
However, nature’s goals don’t have to be our own. Given the results of endlessly chasing satisfaction, it’s probably best that we take our cues from elsewhere. Ideally, we’d draw from our own blissful moments, ones so engrossing that we’re impervious to self-consciousness; moments so captivating that we finally step off of the hedonic treadmill. Only then are we truly present, and only then can we truly be content—not satisfied, but content. Happiness is only in part fueled by pursuit; its culmination rests on actually recognizing when you’ve arrived.
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Reading your short article here was in itself a sort of serenity prayer: thoughtful, intelligent, inspiring, and wreathed with humility. Thank you for this.
Modern readers are easily confused by the phrase "pursuit of happiness" because we tend to think of happiness as piling up goodies and walking around with a smile on your face and not a care in the world. But that's not what the founders meant by the word.
They were thinking of happiness in the Aristotelean sense of "eudaimonia", a thoughtful, lifelong pursuit of perfect balance among the virtues to achieve the ultimate purposes of human existence.
Because we've lost the original idea, we now, among other atrocious innovations, treat the Constitution as a contract whereby the government gives us the things we want to make us "happy". Returning to our original understanding of "the pursuit of happiness" would help us remember what American liberty is supposed to be all about.