The Myth of the Pursuit of Happiness

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Declaration of Independence lately, and what really grinds my gears is the misinterpretation of what Thomas Jefferson referred to as “the pursuit of happiness.” They key word there is “pursuit.” When we think of pursuit, we tend to picture a coyote strapping himself to the back of an ACME rocket and hurtling at hundreds of miles an hour into a solid painting of a desert backdrop. Have you ever read Shakespeare and thought, “This is supposed to be a classic, but I can’t understand a damn thing anyone is saying!”? 400 years ago, the English language wasn’t the same vernacular we use today, so there’s a bit of a barrier. If I were to go into a nursing home with a megaphone and tell everyone to get “turnt up,” any number of things could happen, but chances are, their version of “turnt up” has to do with adjusting the volume knob of the color television set. Believe it or not, the Declaration of Independence isn’t a big deal anymore, probably because things that are over 240 years old tend to go out of style. Like the powdered wig I wore on a blind date (Helpful hint: girls like updated wardrobes). “Pursuit” is one of those words that has multiple definitions and the emphasis has shifted from one definition to another over time. The definition of pursuit that Tom was referring to had nothing to do with chasing after something. He was referring more to definition number three instead of definitions number one or two on dictionary.com:

noun
1. the act of pursuing :
in pursuit of the fox.
2. an effort to secure or attain; quest:
the pursuit of happiness.
3. any occupation, pastime, or the like, in which a person is engaged regularly or customarily:
literary pursuits.

While, yes, we are trying to secure happiness, the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence refers more to the occupation or the creation of happiness. Where we misinterpret the meaning of “the pursuit of happiness” is in assuming that happiness is something that can be chased after and attained by completing a goal, having possessions, or seeing that the girl you’re going on a blind date with is also wearing a powdered wig. But what happens when these things are taken away? What happens when we don’t reach a goal? We lose out on that happiness. That’s not authentic happiness. Pursuing happiness is creating happiness from within. Even if we don’t complete our goals, get lots of money and possessions, or have a romantic relationship, we still maintain that joy inside of us because we’ve made the decision to create it for ourselves.

We’ve been conditioned by society to believe that we’ll “be happy when…” This pisses me off, which isn’t very happy of me, but this idea is wrong in two key ways. First things first: this statement is an admission to ourselves that we’re not happy now. Hypothetically, if you have the choice to be happy or not, what would you choose? Now realistically, if you have the choice to be happy or not, what would you choose? Here’s the thing: we have that choice. We make the decision to be happy. We may think that external events dictate whether we should be happy or not, but the decision comes from within. Yes, it is normal to feel emotions other than happiness, but when we make the decision to pursue (read: create) happiness now, bringing happiness to our experiences instead of trying to extract happiness from them becomes automatic. To exude happiness not only makes our experience of the world a much more positive one, it also enhances the experience of those around us. The other major flaw of the “I’ll be happy when…” premise is that once we achieve that goal, purchase that Maserati, or start dating the person we’ve been after, we begin wanting more. It’s human nature. Once we achieve that goal, we want to do more, once we buy that car, we want something else, and once we start dating, we grow, change, and start looking for more in the relationship. Therefore, we may feel “happiness” at first, but once we set our sights on something else, “we’ll be happy when…” again. It becomes an endless cycle and we keep chasing, and chasing, and chasing, and chasing, and…

Happiness is our natural state of being, but it’s hidden by layer upon layer of conditioning. Chasing after happiness is like those people we hear about in the news who sell priceless antiques worth millions at a garage sale to make a few bucks. We have all of the happiness we need inside of us already, but we distract ourselves by looking elsewhere to be happy. If we believe that pursuing happiness “out there” will actually bring us happiness, we’ve just signed our lives away to a fictitious concept and the thing we’re after becomes impossible to reach. We become Sisyphus and are stuck rolling a boulder up a hill for eternity. The purpose of life is to create for ourselves, not chase after something that is impossible to catch. Pursue happiness the way it is meant to be pursued: create it from within and get off the back of that ACME rocket – those things never work right anyway.

Majoring in Minor Things

Why Focusing on the Little Things Blocks Out the Big Picture

My return flight to New York City was set to leave from Akron-Canton Airport at 5:00 PM. It was 2:30 and I had just realized that I forgot my contact lenses, glasses case, toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, and vitamins at my girlfriend’s apartment in Cleveland, 45 minutes away from my parents’ house, which was another half hour away from the airport. What I should have been doing was enjoying the last couple of hours in Ohio with my family. What I was doing instead was imagining spending the next couple of months blindly fumbling around New York City with God-awful breath, an unkempt beard, and a weak immune system. There was frantic pacing, unnecessary cursing, and, “Oh God, I’m going to miss my flight! Is my girlfriend going to break up with me over this!?” I had my keys in my hand and was on my way to my car, ready to make the hour and a half trek to and back from Cleveland when my dad suggested I slow down and think everything through. I needed that. Because I let these unchecked thoughts have a field day in my brain, I completely forgot that I had six pairs of extra contacts at my New York apartment and could buy everything else at literally any pharmacy. Crisis averted.

It didn’t have to be a crisis though. Now, any time I’m confronted with a minor obstacle, I’ve learned to slow down and ask myself a couple of questions. “Is this fantasized prediction of the future guaranteed to come true? Is this worth the stress I’m putting myself through?” The answer to both questions is always no. When we’re immersed in a seemingly stressful situation, it’s not always easy to stop for a few seconds and realize there are better options than the worst-case scenario that we project inside of our heads. Any time something goes wrong, it doesn’t mean everyone we know is going to hate us, it means we have an opportunity to grow by weighing out worst-case scenario, probable scenario, and best-case scenario, and then choosing our next move accordingly. Personally, I prefer best-case. Looking back, we’ve all made it through every stressful situation intact, so we shouldn’t allow these “panic-inducing” situations to loom so large in front of us. They’re never as serious as we make them seem.

Stressing out actually reduces the number of options of actions we consider taking because we’re so focused on the potential ramifications of the problem (which are all imagined), we filter out many possible (and logical) solutions. In fact, according to a study done at the University of Toronto, our line of vision is actually worse when we’re in a negative state of mind!^1 I was producing a sketch comedy show at Carolines on Broadway, and two nights before the show, my computer crashed. If anything was a panic-inducing situation for me, this had the potential to be the Titanic (no offense to those on board the Titanic – I’m not minimalizing your situation, I’m just being dramatic). I needed to use my laptop for music cues and sound effects, and with the super-important dress rehearsal just hours away, my initial reaction was pounding my fists on the desk and shouting, “No, no, no, no, nonononono, not now!” I felt my brain start running away with stinkin’ thinkin.’ “The show is ruined! We’re going to have to cancel! All of this hard work for nothing!” But I remembered the famous forgotten contact debacle, asked myself, “Is this fantasized prediction of the future guaranteed to come true? Is this worth the stress I’m putting myself through?” Just like that, I stopped my panicking brain from deciding on anything rash and took a much-needed moment to really weigh my options. Worst-case: I throw my computer against the wall and do the show without music or sound effects, ruining everything! Probable: someone else downloads the sound effects and music and we use their computer to run the show. Best-case: I take my computer to the Genius Bar and get it back in time for the show. I chose the latter and my computer was repaired and ready to go literally minutes before the pivotal final dress rehearsal.

We’re faced with problems and obstacles, big and small, every day. If we spend our time thinking about how bad the problem is, no matter how small, it takes over our lives and has a dramatic impact on what happens next. Basing our choices on imagined future worst-case scenarios that aren’t even guaranteed to happen causes us to forget to focus on right now. As a result, the actual solution becomes ever-evasive and we create a self-fulfilling prophecy based on decisions made in a stressed-out state of mind. Take a breather, ask yourself the questions, and imagine a future where the result is the best-case scenario. I guarantee the next action you take will help guide you there if you let it.

1: Elias, C., & Luke, K. (2009, June 2). People Who Wear Rose-Coloured Glasses See More. Retrieved September 4, 2014.
http://www.artsci.utoronto.ca/main/news-archives/people-who-wear-rose-coloured-glasses-see-more/