“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It’s one of the most famous phrases in American history, penned by one of our most beloved forefathers, Thomas Jefferson. Listing the unalienable rights granted to every American by the Declaration of Independence, it just happens to include a very key word: happiness. Happiness. It is an extremely fuzzy concept. We all want it, and those of us that were born in America believe it is our right. I mean, the Declaration of Independence even states that it is our right. Other countries may have something similar, boasting mottos just like ours, except nowhere else will you find the word ’happiness’. Instead, you’ll see words like ‘fraternity,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘prosperity,’ or, ‘security of person.’ But we use ‘happiness,’ singling out something that is hard to define and can be an extremely objectionable concept. However so, we want it, and we’ll do anything to get it. We pursue it like ravenous animals because America says we deserve it. It would almost be un-American not to pursue it, right? Right? But what if thinking we are entitled to happiness is actually making us unhappy? Just hear me out.
We are told that happiness is our right. We deserve it and it should be ours to have and keep. However, if we look at Jefferson’s statement, we may find that it is quite a loaded sentence. It makes us think that pursuing happiness is American, something we are actually granted by our almighty Declaration. So what do we do? Like following a commandment, we do exactly as instructed by our founding fathers, but we blow things out of proportion. We strive for this state of bliss, this amazing high, that we might live in a constant state of happiness. Unfortunately, that feeling is not constant. It could even be considered a deviation from the norm. It is an abnormal feeling, an abnormal state of being with symptoms, almost like a disease. Like an orgasmic high, it is a surge of fantastic feelings: you inevitably come back down from the rush. But we find ourselves addicted to it, and so this concept of happiness has become a drug. We are consumed by this cycle and it dictates our lives
We spend so much of our lives in this constant, often futile, search for over-the-top happiness. We are obsessed with it, and it rules our lives. We look for it in things and people, and we use food, sex, alcohol and, in some extremes, other drugs, to try to achieve it. This state-of-bliss, disproportional idea of happiness is a customized and different realization for everyone, and like a drug addiction, it elicits a different reaction from each individual. And we are addicted. Like a hungry crack-addict rocking back and forth, we itch for our next extreme-happiness fix. But what most of us fail to realize is that our ridiculous notion of happiness is what actually makes us unhappy. We find ourselves feeling unsatisfied while seeking satisfaction, and we are constantly aware of the absence of some transcendent good, rather than realizing and appreciating the good we already have. We, as Americans, are lacking appreciation. We have perverted Jefferson’s concept of happiness by equating it with instant gratification, consumption and entitlement, an unfulfillable, unsustainable list of desires.
The pursuit that Jefferson stated as a given right set Americans up for failure. The idea was a dangerous one, preceded by John Locke’s “Life, Liberty, and Property.” In the land of the free, we are given the opportunities to reach out for what we want. We are taught that hard work and determination will achieve anything. We can pursue happiness. But we have turned into a nation that bases happiness on a wild exaggeration of what we have: property. We are obsessed with money, expensive things, big homes and fancy cars because these are the things we think happiness is all about. But think about when you are actually most happy…. Usually, it’s not when you’ve just bought a new car; that feeling is fleeting. And it’s not even when you have actively pursued it, either. Instead, you are usually most happy when happiness has pursued you, or when you’ve stumbled upon it. Think about the great things in our lives that make us happy: things like family, friends, or even our unique place in this vast world. When we stop chasing and hunting for things we don’t have, we start to realize the good things we do have.
We all crave happiness, and we’ll do anything to get it. And yes, we do deserve it… we are just not guaranteed it. Most of us, if we think about the good in our lives, can find plenty of reasons to be happy. We Americans are extremely fortunate. We are a country of ‘haves,’ not ‘have-nots.’ So enjoy what you can. Jefferson may have been right in his initial concept of the pursuit of happiness, which makes our current interpretation the real problem. Happiness is why I do what I do and why I pursue my dreams, but understanding what actually makes us happy is what is most important. My family, friends, meeting new people and learning about new things make me most happy, not the car in the driveway or the money in my wallet.
Our founding fathers were insightful. This is the land of the free and happiness-addicted, and that may be quite fine, as long as we do not forget why Jefferson put such an enigmatic statement in our Declaration of Independence. There was a purpose for why he included ‘the pursuit of happiness’ instead of ‘property.’ It is not about how much stuff you have. Property may make you happy for a moment, but that moment is truly fleeting. So pursue happiness, but do not lose sight of what happiness really is and what Jefferson really meant. There may have been a reason Jefferson changed Locke’s original phrase, allowing for happiness to be so much more than just property. We do have the right to be happy, and if we stop and take a moment to realize what we have and change own modern interpretation of this famous quote, we may realize we already have happiness. It is all about appreciation. So appreciate life and stay ‘addicted’ to the happiness you already have.