The pursuit of happiness

I recently finished watching a documentary series about the American presidents.  Of course, Thomas Jefferson is among the more esteemed office holders in our history, but his greatest achievement was accomplished long before his election.  The Declaration of Independence is among the most influential documents ever written.  I was thinking about the great care and deliberation with which Jefferson chose his words; in particular, I’ve been thinking about our unalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Rev. Arlene Bump of the Center for Spiritual Living, Fort Lauderdale, once said in a sermon (available as an free podcast on iTunes) that it is important to note that Jefferson did not say we have an unalienable right to happiness, but to the pursuit of happiness.  The distinction is significant.

No one – no government, no parent, no spouse, no religion – could ever promise anyone a life of happiness.  We will all face unanticipated challenges and personal struggles that help us discover who we really are and what we want from life.  But, every individual has an innate ability – and a right – to try to create a happy life, whatever that might entail.

To be (happy) or not to be…

We’re about halfway through 2011 (is it just me or is that hard to believe???).  If you’re like me, you hardly even remember what your New Year’s resolutions were.  Maybe now is a good time to reflect on the past six months and ask ourselves if we actually are pursuing happiness in our lives.  If not, we should examine what we  are pursuing and whether it’s worthy of the time and attention we’re giving it.

Do we spend too much time at our jobs?  Do the hours we put in contribute to our personal pursuit of happiness?  Would the world come to an end if we left on time and let some tasks wait until the next day?  (And if so, Harold Camping would appreciate it if that work was left for October 21.)

Do we continue to hang on to a relationship that we know ought to end?  We deny both ourselves and our partner the opportunity to experience life’s most profound happiness – true love – when we refuse to move on and let go.

Do we live in the past and allow our memories to dictate how we feel and act?  Each morning, we’re given the opportunity to have the life we want.  What happened yesterday or yesteryear only has the power we give it.  We can be whomever we choose, regardless of what’s come before.  We become our own anchor, weighed down by our history when we don’t let go of what isn’t relevant today.

And similarly, do we hold on to anger and grudges?  If so, does this serve our ultimate good?  Being angry and a victim takes a lot of energy; energy that could be put to better use.   Rev. Bump asks, “Woud you rather be justified and right or happy?”   Old, worn out anger deprives us of friendships and experiences that we might really enjoy.   We will quickly become very lonely if reject everyone who sees world differently than we do.

Big picture

In a previous post, I mentioned Gay Hendricks, author of The Big Leap.  He’s also written a little guide called Five Wishes, in which he describes the conversation that changed his life.  A stranger at a party asked him to imagine himself on his deathbed, asking the question, “Was my life a complete success?”  Assuming the answer is no, the next question is “Why not?”  What are the things that you’d need to have achieved in order to consider your life a complete success?  It’s worth the time it takes to sit down and identify what you want from life.  If you don’t know, how can you “pursue” it?

Our wishes don’t have to be grand affairs – “I want a yacht and six houses.”  Our individual, ultimate good might just include having family and friends around us.  Or learning to play the piano.  Or refusing to give up on a dream, no matter how many times we are told no.

Minute by minute

Though we may not spend each moment of our day striving for our big picture goals, we can still “pursue happiness” in small ways.  I love quotes by Ralph Waldo Emerson, especially this one: “We are what we think about all day long.”  We can ask ourselves: Am I thinking about (and giving my attention to) things that make me happy?

As an example of the trivial, last night I got home late from the gym and all the parking spaces on my street were taken.  The old me would have been infuriated at this small inconvenience.  I would have stormed into the house (after walking the extra 30 feet from the street around the corner) and spent the night muttering about my jerk neighbor who has a driveway, but parks on the street anyway.  However, last night, as I felt my irritation rise, I thought to myself, “Is this worth my attention?”  I wasn’t going to go confront the neighbor and ask him to move, so there wasn’t anything I could do about the problem.  Thus, I determined it wasn’t worth my energy to be angry.

We’re always going to have those day-to-day irritations, like cosmic mosquito bites: the woman who butts in line for groceries, or the hotshot who cuts us off on the highway, or the colleague who has something nasty to say about our work.  None of these things matter any more than we let them.   We are in control.  The sooner we let go and forget, the happier we can be.  Reserve the energy for things that matter.

Hurt vs. Happiness

Of course, there will also be more serious situations – for example, someone we love does or says something that hurts us terribly.  Again, it is our choice whether or not to keep that person in our lives and accept who they are and what they’ve done.  It’s a big question, but generally, the answer will depend on whether we think that person adds to our ultimate good.

We’re never going to like everything about another human being; even those we love the most will occasionally ignite our inner fury.  But since we can’t control our friends and family, all we can do is decide what’s in our own best interest.  What makes us happy – holding on to an argument or calling a truce?  In my experience, forgiving is far more powerful and fulfilling.

Pursue happiness, all day, everyday

To tie this back to the beginning, the thing to remember is that we are all entitled – or to quote the great Jefferson – “endowed by our Creator” with the right to pursue happiness.  It’s what we’re meant to do with our lives.  And if we aren’t happy, then we need to look around to see what we can fix or change.  The answers are always within us.  It’s our job to continue to “pursue” them.

We all deserve to be happy, and should feel no guilt as we attempt to create a better life for ourselves.  Whether it’s a big change – like starting a new career – or a little change – like making time to read a novel – we should feel proud of our efforts… and maybe even a little patriotic!

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Amen.

    Hmm, I wonder if it had been written into the Declaration that, rather than a right to pursue happiness, we had an obligation to do so…

    In any case, I love what you’ve had to say, as always. Thought-provoking, and a good reminder to, well, read a novel, rather than think about the things that choose otherwise un- or less-happy.

  2. Brilliant, as always! I particularly like the concept of each new day being a new start “We can be whomever we choose, regardless of what’s come before”. A fresh start daily is worth a try! Inspirational indeed! Thanks x

  3. Meghan – all of this is so, so true! Everyone has the capability to make their life whatever they want it to be, as opposed to just waiting for good (or bad) things to happen. I can’t understand why anyone would want to be miserable yet, as you said, many people do allow themselves to become their own anchor. I thought was particularly profound and it has stuck with me since I first read it.
    Thanks for another great post!

  4. “The PURSUIT to happiness,” only to be confused with “The RIGHT to happiness.” So true this is. In these time of entitlement, we need to remind ourselves and families that we have the right to pursue it, not expect it because it is our right.

    As you know, you really hit home with a couple points. Making choices that lead to our own happiness. Something I’ve accomplished! Thank you Meghan, for all you write!

  5. […] referred to writers I found through Rev. Cameron, in particular, Gay Hendricks (who I wrote about here, here and here).  In The Great Leap, Hendricks describes how most of us have a subconscious limit […]

  6. Meghan,

    Another home run! And as for ‘jerks’ — sometimes they really are just jerks, but sometimes the behavior is anomalous for them (maybe the lady who butted in line at the grocery store really, really had to pee!).


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