A look at “The Pursuit of Happiness”
The Declaration of Independence has the well-known line:
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.
I think most people can agree, the Declaration of Independence is a brilliant document written by enlightened people. In 2006, a movie with Will Smith came out called “The Pursuit of Happyness”. If you haven’t seen it, please do. It is a powerful and beautiful story. One quote in it really struck me and stayed with me.
“It was right then that I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part in there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can actually never have it. No matter what. How did he know that?”
The idea that happiness is only something we can pursue but never have is an amazing idea but not worded just right.
Someone once told me Jefferson’s original line from his first draft was “Pursuit of Enlightenment” but other people in the document’s creation process didn’t like that. I have no idea of that is historically accurate, but it brings some perspective to what we should be pursuing. I wish our founding fathers had spent a little more time considering this line, because I think, with all the brilliance in the Declaration of Independence, this one well-known line, started America down a false path. The Pursuit of Happiness is a fools path.
Happiness, as a goal, is unobtainable.
In my book, The Infinite Jeff, this idea is explored. In the book, the concept of products and by-products is used in a lot of different areas. In many ways, what’s wrong with our world and our society is we have set the incorrect things as our products, as our goals. Things like happiness, wealth, Heaven, peace, love, success — and many more — would be great to have in abundance but, as a product, as a goal, they are mostly unobtainable and may actually lead the destruction of the desired outcome. I say mostly unobtainable because we all know people who have set wealth as a goal and have achieved it. But because wealth was the goal, so many more desirable aspects of life were lost in the pursuit of that goal.
I believe, if our founding fathers had replaced one word in the Declaration of Independence, America might have gone down a different path. What if the line had said:
“The pursuit of fulfillment”?
A problem with the word “Happiness” is, it pulls in pleasure. People equate pleasure with happiness and pleasure, as its own pursuit, is an addictive drug. With pleasure as the desired product of actions, people go on pleasure fixes. They search for the pleasure high and think they are searching for happiness. Think of seeing a great movie, hanging out and drinking and laughing with friends, sex, competing in a tournament, racing. All of those are wonderful things, all of those are pleasurable things, but they are highs. By definition, what follows a high is a low. If we’re not careful, we can find ourselves in an extreme cycle of highs and lows.
The concept of fulfillment brings in a different mindset. It looks at who you are — what makes you you — what feeds your inner spirit — what kind of person are you — what builds you.
My dad just turned 80 and is very active with Habitat for Humanity. He went into the doctor for an annual check-up and said, “You told me before, I was in my seventies and shouldn’t be climbing on roofs. So now that I’m not in my seventies anymore, it’s okay, right?” My dad is a mechanical engineer. I grew up working on cars, building buildings and doing other such things. He loves building and he loves helping people. Habitat for Humanity gives him a chance to do both. This feeds his inner spirit and keeps him active. It is both pleasurable and brings him happiness, but those are by-products. The product is fulfillment.
Now the hard part. The pursuit of fulfillment is difficult but, unlike the pursuit of happiness, it is achievable. Self-exploration is key. Having a deep understanding of yourself is a must. There are a lot of ways to do that but I have found one activity is critical in my path. Reading. Reading has been critical in my growth. In The Infinite Jeff, the main character continually gives out books because he sees it as transformational to people.
When you understand what fulfills you and live a life authentic to that, happiness is a by-product. You still experience pleasure but it isn’t a pursuit to escape the pain and meaninglessness of life. It is a by-product of the fulfillment.