Can we stop pursuing Happiness now?

  • Post author:
  • Reading time:8 mins read
  • Post category:Discover

There is a problem with the Declaration of Independence.

“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 was speaking with my Italian teacher the other day. I am learning to engage in philosophical debate. So we had a discussion about Americans in Italy, their dismay at the need to line-dry their laundry, since asciugatrici haven’t become popular over here, and the philosophical underpinnings of American society. She made a point I hadn’t thought about – which is that happiness is in our constitution, unlike that of any other nation. And that belies a certain fundamental striving we Americans exhibit – as though there is a mandate for us to be happy. So we smile a lot, even if it’s fake, and we work hard to achieve what we think is happiness.

The whole thing came up because I was planning a trip in the near future and she asked me if I was happy about it. “Happy?” I thought. “Hmmm… I am excited. I am looking forward to it. I am eager with anticipation. But happy? Ya know, as an American, I would never think to describe my current state of anticipation of the future as one of happiness. Happiness, I would say can only relate to the present moment, and the present moment is conditioned on my past experiences – like what happened last night when my internet crashed before I was supposed to deliver an online talk to 200 people. Since the last 24 hours have been a bit harrowing, I wouldn’t say at the moment that I am happy. But yeah, I am looking forward to my trip.” Though of course, I was far less eloquent in Italian.

Interestingly, Italians don’t see it this way.

They would just as easily describe themselves as happy right now because they have something interesting to look forward to. And this launched our discussion of cultural difference between our two countries with respect to happiness. She referenced an old professor, who quoted another scholar, who suggested that this specific cultural bias of Americans towards striving for happiness is embedded within our constitution.

The idea followed me throughout the day. Part of the reason I moved to Italy is because I knew that there was a slower pace of life, an easier attitude towards time, and a general unwillingness to prioritize anything before the simple enjoyment of life’s pleasures in Italy. 10AM is coffee time. 1PM Lunch and 8PM dinner. Screw you if you want to buy something in my store during one of those times. Life comes before work here. I wanted that attitude to rub off on me.

So I’ve been thinking more about my American conception of happiness and how it relates to the US Constitution. Well, turns out it’s not in the constitution. When I looked it up, the word happiness doesn’t appear there once. Naturally, my Italian teacher was misattributing to the constitution the very famous opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence, which says:

“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.”

The very notion that these words appeared in a document about independence and what independence therefore must mean also seemed meaningful, perhaps the subject of another post. But as I read this, I was astonished that the semantics of this sentence had never before struck me as odd. I delivered the commencement speech at my high school graduation. In my speech, I quoted these lines because my friends had dared me to use the word penis in my speech for the 5,000+ audience in Freeman Coliseum, thereby becoming the reigning Penis Game champion of my entire high school class. There were police officers on the stage ready to cart off hooligans, flashers, and troublemakers, so I tucked the pronunciation of penis into HapPENIS. Fortunately, the adults weren’t really listening, and the speech went off without a hitch.

But back to the Declaration of Independence.

They say we all have certain unalienable Rights. Among those rights are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. They even call attention to the three rights by their choice of capitalization. The rights are

  1. Life
  2. Liberty
  3. Happiness

So why not just say that? What not just say: “…they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”? This begs a few questions. If the founding fathers were here, I’d ask them what they were thinking:

  • So what you are saying is that we are not entitled simply to be happy? And that we need to do something in order to earn that right (this pursuit you speak of)?
  • And then what are you implying about the nature of the state of happiness? Given their inalienability by themselves, Life and Liberty seem to be states of being, but apparently, happiness is something else?
  • Well, what is it? Is it a destination? A prize we have to earn? A purer state only achievable by the initiated few? Not simply something we can do and be and have right now?
  • If so, where is it? How do we know when we have arrived? And why didn’t our Creator just give us the right to Be Happy, right here and now, just like we were given the right to be alive and to be free?

I am really curious what they’d say. I know these were very smart men. But to my 21st century woman’s eye, they seemed to have made a gargantuan mistake in their word choice of this phrase, which, as the first sentence of the most important document any of them ever contributed to, was no doubt worked over, edited, and revised a hundred times.

They should have just said that our inalienable rights are Life, Liberty, and Happiness. Period.

Insisting on the Right being defined as “the Pursuit of Happiness” sort of doomed us to a few paradoxes.

  1. It makes Happiness seem a destination. Somewhere to get to. Somewhere other than here. It also seems to imply it is a permanent state – if you can pursue it, then presumably, once we get there, we’re happy and that’s the end of that. Well, OK, so I guess then all I need to do is get myself to it or somehow bring it to me.
  2. But that has given us some very effed up ideas about what makes for happiness. When I lose 10 pounds, then I’ll be happy. When I make more money, then I’ll be happy. If you would just put your laundry in the hamper, then I’ll be happy. It dooms us to a life of chasing this illusory perfect and permanent state of happiness by any and all means.
  3. And, importantly it places the causality of our happiness outside ourselves. Happiness is mine to pursue (not experience) so my job is just to figure out the right combination of possessions, activities, relationships, and external events that will make me happy.
  4. And that, then, commits us to this pursuit. We have to always be striving, efforting, working hard to earn that happiness that our Creator didn’t deign to just give us outright. No, no. Happiness only befalls the worthy. So get back to work.
  5. There is an inherent shame in this. I am working my ass off for this happiness the founding document of my country says I have the inalienable right to pursue, but I am not there yet. And I am not there right now. So there must be something inherently wrong with me if I’m not happy now. It must be my fault.
  6. And that bars us from truly experiencing happiness in situ, right here, right now, where we are. In fact, happiness, like all states of being, can only really be said to exist in the present moment. This is a phenomenological tautology. The thing that you are experiencing right now in this moment is happiness itself. That thing you are pursuing someday hopefully is only the idea of happiness.

And so, the upshot of all of this, if we connect the dots, is that we are locked out of true happiness, because we are imprudently chasing the idea of it instead of experiencing the thing itself.

I gotta give props to my founding fathers. Life as I know it would be impossible without them. But still, how did they manage to get this one phrase so wrong? And much much much more importantly, today, here and now, in my life and yours, what is the remedy for this folly?

I am going to go meditate on that.