The U.S. Declaration of Independence proclaims that we all have a right to the pursuit of happiness, whatever that means. But what is the historical pursuit of happiness was and what it is now are two quite different things. That is what this post is all about.
The Epicurean image of happiness which Jefferson was talking about is quite different from how we see happiness today. As Epicurus saw it, happiness is merely the lack of physical pain and mental disturbance. It was not about the pursuit of material gain, or notching up gratifying experiences, but instead it was happiness by being in a state of perpetual gratefulness.
Happiness means something quite different today. How did it come to the point of becoming a matter of relentless competitive work to be happy? Too many of us are now convinced that happiness should be a 24/7 thing and if it is not, then we must be failures. That causes different problems than Jefferson’s version.
Pursuing happiness today often results in prescription antidepressants that are consumed at record levels, self-help books crowding the shelves, and multiple competing therapies to shift us out of a negative mindset so that we might flourish. If we just get over the mentality that every moment must be optimized in order to achieve peak happiness, we might be actually able to push our unhappiness aside.
The basic problem that causes our happiness conflicts is that we need to embrace both the joys of life and its sorrows as being part of the yin/yang of life. Without the sorrows we can’t appreciate the happy times. Embracing the melancholy times is the secret of being successful in the true pursuit of happiness. Pursuing happiness for its own sake just leads to disappointment and loneliness. If we were to see happiness as Epicurius did maybe the negative feelings of life just might not be so negative after all.
What if, instead, happiness was something that we realized ebbs and flows and that negativity is fundamental to life itself. If we are always happy then how can we even define happiness? Ironically, happiness is not to be incessantly chased but it is more a state of mind and which we are satisfied in all feelings.
Down to its fundamentals, life would not be worth living if it floated only between peak experiences.