The Pursuit of Happiness

By Hugh H. Harrison

It has been a life-long experience of mine to suffer confusion and embarrassment when asked, "Are you happy?" Never have I thought that I should be happy. I have been unhappy, but happiness must involve far more than just the absence of unhappiness. Contentment I have known, and think of as characterizing my normal state. But it is my good fortune not to be consumed by nor lost in "The Pursuit of Happiness" as so many others seem to be.

From time to time my wife would experience what she called the "pink fuzzies," during which she felt herself suffused by love: all things within and without would turn a rosy pink and all would become quiet and peaceful in her domain. She did not seek these experiences nor did she think she in any way caused them. "They just happen," she would say. If pressed she would go so far as to admit that "at least it appears that I did nothing to prevent them -- brief and occasional as they are."

Granted -- people can and do experience happiness. But most of the time the words "Are you happy?" sound more like an assertion of faith, seeking -- almost demanding -- affirmation. The article of faith being that a state of happiness is not only obtainable but sustainable by normal folks caught up in today's hurly-burly life. My difficulties stem from my own beliefs that:

Happiness should not be pursued.
If pursued, happiness cannot be caught.
If caught, happiness could not be held.

Where did all this pursuit of happiness frenzy develop from? I think our country's founders had much to do with energizing a natural human tendency into an all-consuming national preoccupation. On July 4, 1776, they declared, on behalf of the United States of America, political independence from Great Britain and asserted that men are "created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

These national founders resorted to armed conflict to support their declaration and in time succeeded in completing the separation they sought. They then set out to establish institutional arrangements and legal procedures in the Constitution which they felt would be willingly adopted and supported by the citizens of this new nation -- arrangements and procedures designed to protect men's rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

My wife seems to have known moments of happiness. Looking to her for guidance, we might have asked, "What then did you pursue if not happiness?" Her answer would have been an unequivocal, "I only sought truth."

I think of our founding fathers as essentially truth seekers and truth sharers, and wonder why they did not attribute similar tendencies to their fellow citizens. What if they had instead declared that the essential inalienable human rights were "to life, liberty and the pursuit of truth"?

The inalienable rights cited by our founding fathers were rights of and for the self. "The pursuit of happiness" did not imply a concern for the happiness of others. The fact that this selfish human tendency was recognized and taken into account in 1776 has now been adopted as not only an excuse for, but as a legitimizing license for the rampant and unchecked selfishness of our day. What if people today were pursuing truth with the same vigor and intensity they pursue selfish happiness? What then?

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