Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are so integral to the American ethos that our nation’s founders saw fit to include them in Declaration of Independence. While few would argue the value of these as a declaration of the rights of man, I find the “pursuit of happiness” component to be a bit unclear.
To begin, what exactly is happiness? Wikipedia defines it as the following: “Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being characterized by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.” So, feeling good, more or less. I’d say that is probably in line with what most of us mean when we use the term.
While I don’t wish to argue about whether or not we should all have the right to pursue happiness, it might be worth considering whether it is wise to build a life around the pursuit of good feelings, including happiness. This might seem strange. Am I arguing that happiness isn’t a good thing? No, not at all. Rather, I am proposing that at times the Pursuit of Happiness might actually be quite counterproductive, decreasing rather than increasing happiness while robbing our lives of a sense of meaning.
How is this so? In a thought-provoking article in the Atlantic, author Emily Esfahani Smith argues that a sense of meaning in life and happiness are often at odds. Here is a provocative snippet:
"Researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a 'taker' while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a 'giver.'"
That is really something. When we are pursuing “happiness,” we are pursuing a feeling state, such as we described above. This means that our motivation is essentially selfish — we are engaging in behavior for the expressed purpose of obtaining a personal benefit. We are organizing our way of life, our day-to-day behavior, around gratifying our own desire for a feeling that we call happiness. There is nothing inherently wrong with this in and of itself, but it may be the case that sometimes our own personal desires come into conflict with things that we might consider more meaningful.
When you consider the things in life that are particularly meaningful, it is striking how often those things require some expression of virtue. Commitment, perseverance, sacrifice and a willingness to endure discomfort tend to be central to the service of a higher purpose of any sort. None of these things are directly pleasant in and of themselves. They may form the backbone for a more enduring type of well-being, but they do not represent a direct “pursuit of happiness.”
“Pursuit of happiness” and the service of a higher calling may be directly at odds. Sadly, many of us, for perfectly understandable reasons, shy away from difficult experiences in favor of ones that are more associated with pleasure and happiness. Again, there is nothing at all wrong with pleasure or happiness, we must simply be wary of the very human tendency to begin to ignore other important things in order to more enthusiastically chase happiness. If our pursuit of pleasant feelings sabotages the meaningful activities and relationships in our life, we may be writing a script for long-term misery.