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“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So reads the thunderous second sentence of the Declaration of Independence–probably the finest thing Thomas Jefferson ever wrote. It is a cornerstone not just of the American spirit but of worldwide humanist thought. It is one of the most influential sentences ever written in English. National political discourse rightly concentrates on the first and second inalienable rights: life and liberty (for powerful interests conspire against both in every era). The popular imagination however seizes on the last part of the sentence: “the pursuit of happiness” is fundamental to our lives, yet even the phrasing betrays a certain elusory and unattainable quality to the concept. “Pursuit” suggests that felicity, contentment, and joy are will-of-the-wisps which can be chased but never caught. This is a sobering way of looking at happiness, but it is an important concept to explore–for the well-known roads to happiness are indeed dangerously illusory. Pleasure is a physiological goad pushing us toward survival and reproduction (and, in a world of boundless plenty, the pursuit of pleasure has become dangerously untethered from the dictates it was originally meant to serve). Accomplishment is a tread-mill which never yields the desired results—a mountain with no top. Possessions do not satisfy. Relationships are as fragile as soap bubbles. So what is happiness anyway? Is there a meaningful way to succinctly address a subject which has tormented the rich, wise, and powerful as much as the poor, the ignorant, and the oppressed. Can we summarize a quest which has baffled sybarites, monks, philosophers, kings, and saints?
A rudimentary approach to happiness is to equate happiness with physical pleasure. Such a voluptuary outlook is, after all, based on fundamental biological demands. We crave sweets and rich savory foods for a reason. When we were hunter-gatherers (which, from an evolutionary perspective, was only a short time ago) we needed such things to survive famines and shortages. Our eyes lustfully seek out beautiful human forms because of a billion year old imperative from our genes. Gambling too was a path to success. The chief who took his clan on a dangerous trip across an unknown channel might be killed, but he might also find an untouched land filled with resources. We all descend from such risk-takers. Even our troubles with intoxicants and sundry addictive substances have evolutionary underpinnings. We need an internal carrot and stick to help us diagnose what is good for us and what is not. Certain chemicals happen to touch the reward and pleasure parts of our brain (or block pain comprehension) in ways that short-circuit this diagnostic.
The basic drives that create resilient, successful hunter gatherers can be disastrous in a world filled with superabundant processed food, internet porn, online gambling, and high-tension drugs. Our genotype is at odds with the world we have created. Physical pleasure does not lead to happiness. In an agricultural and industrialized world it makes us fat, unhealthy, addicted, and jaded.
So we must walk a more intense road and pursue the disciplined calculating path of ambition. In the contemporary world this hinges on trade. Imagine a person who is the perfect epitome of free-market capitalism. Such an individual realizes that literally everything is a trade. Even romantic relationships are a market of sorts–where one wants to “buy low and sell high” thus maximizing a limited set of appealing characteristics in exchange for the most desirable mate. In fact economists call people who obsessively seek the best option in every circumstance “maximizers.” They seek the best toothpaste, cars, investments, careers, and spouses. A moment of reflection will demonstrate that Madison Avenue, Wall Street, and Hollywood are all industries which are set up to create maximizers. The idea that we must have the best of all choices is an underpinning of our culture. What a shame that social scientists have discovered that maximizers are chronically unhappy when compared with people who care less about making the perfect choice in every circumstance. The perfect car gets a dinged fender (or another richer banker buys a fancier model). The perfect investment shoots up and falls apart. The perfect relationship comes apart as both parties change.
Thanks to a multitude of choice we are stuck with a bizarre false consciousness that the perfect choice will make us happy. This thought-provoking essay explores the emotional traps inherent in a society with too much choice (it will appeal to fellow New Yorkers for making the Big Apple seem like the ultimate ambiguous trade).
Pleasure, ambition, and material goods all fail as sources of happiness (indeed they fail in a way which hints darkly as the insufficiency of romantic love). We turn toward more abstract virtues—devotion, altruism, curiosity. Here, at last we find people who seem happy—who are not caught on a cruel tread-mill where gaining a cherished objective causes them to become disillusioned with that objective. What is the commonality between the otherworldly promises of religion, the struggles of philanthropy, and the burning quest for knowledge?
The devout are directed to live a certain way by sources which they believe to be of supernatural or spiritual origin. The Anabaptist, the Sufi, the Buddhist monk, all strive for perfection of a sort which will be rewarded beyond death. Heaven and Nirvana give meaning to their everyday trials and tribulations (even if the next world might just be another illusion). It vexes me to acknowledge that happiness can be discovered in such a system, and yet I have met faithful people who have convinced me that such is the case. Additionally (unless you worship a capricious deity of death), the religious viewpoint, although apt to concentrate overmuch on imaginary/unknowable goals also inclines toward helping others.
People dedicated to helping others, sometimes feel underappreciated or abused, however, in surveys they report feeling more content with life than the hard-charging (well-recompensed) masters of international finance. The world always suffers from poverty and disease and misery. Environmental devastation is widespread. Yet even in the face of such setbacks, the altruists continue forward. They busy themselves by making something worthwhile or helping others. Like Vishnu, their purpose is to try to preserve the world from destruction. These are all powerful and noble motivations. Struggling to better the world is a struggle with no end, but it is a hero’s quest and bears its own rewards.
Finally there are those who find happiness battling ignorance. Curiosity–the virtue of the scientist and the philosopher–causes humankind to continuously play with fire and put our fingers in the light sockets of the universe. Struggling for provable answers to questions about nature is the foremost quest of life. The long quest for comprehension of the world sometimes yields stunning insights into the universe but more often it leads to more tortuous questions. It is unknown whether science has any ultimate answers, but if so they are in the distant future and more questions continue to mount up.
Each of these routes to happiness shares a common trait: anticipation. Zealots imagine the pleasures and consummate perfection of the next world. The do-gooder toils for the future betterment of humankind and finds pleasure in a child’s smile or a rescued species of butterfly. The physicist, mathematician, and natural scientist posit hypotheses which may take lifetimes to unravel—and which may indeed be proven spectacularly wrong. However anticipating a future outcome and working towards it—even if it never comes—maybe especially if it never comes–seems to incline people toward fulfillment.
The question of what happiness is and how to find it thus boils down to anticipation. Find something worth living for and fight for it, even though the way is lost and the light is occluded! The phrasing of the Declaration of Independence was not a crafty way for Thomas Jefferson to hint that we were never meant to actually capture felicity, it was an instructional hint as to how to find meaning and happiness in life. Keep up the pursuit! The search itself is the answer. Consummation is just another illusion.