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Pursuit of Happiness

New -- 1 April 2005

Updated -- 15 June 2005

And again -- 1 May 2006

(The pursuit continues!)

The "pursuit of happiness" has been enshrined in the American consciousness via its appearance in the Declaration of Independence. And while this exalted document has no force of law -- i.e. it was essentially nothing more than a notice of a divorce and not an article or part of a constitution -- the fact remains that most Americans claim an inalienable right to pursue their own definition of happiness. This quest, however, has for many people turned out to be a major challenge.

Accordingly, we will spend just a bit of time on the "challenges", prior to leaping off into the higher, more rarefied realms of going for the gusto (see below).

On the one hand, there is the sense that happiness and its attainability is geographically sensitive. Or as Walter Kirn wrote, "It's a Glad, Sad, Mad World." [1] Latin Americans, for example, are according to some polls among the happiest people in the world. This is ostensibly because they tend to look on the sunny side of life. The Japanese, on the other hand, are culturally encouraged to avoid lifting oneself above others by claiming to feel good. To a significant extent, therefore, the social context in which one finds oneself defines one's personal identity and expectations and/or meaning in life.

A notable example is the view of Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz and several other Nazi death camps during World War II. Death camps -- not being the life of the party they might be -- constitutes a very commanding social context. Supposedly it was the conditions in the camps that led Frankl to write [2]:

"Again and again I... admonish my students both in Europe and in America: 'Don't aim at success -- the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen... you have to let it happen by not caring about it."

"In the long run, I say! -- [happiness] will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it." [emphasis added]

Obviously Auschwitz was not the party school that say the University of Colorado is. And thus there is the distinct possibility of a death camp's slight influence on the thinking of Frankl, which might not be entirely accurate in the broader context of what we might call, Life Camps. Frankl, for example, is fond of quoting Nietzsche: "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how."

There is much to be said for this belief structure -- particularly when one is on their way to a concentration camp. But as Frankl also pointed out:

"On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves." [2]

This enforced idea of the ends justifying the means -- whatever the means -- is understandable when one is in a social context where survival is the paramount issue... OR when survival is perceived as the paramount issue.

The reality of the modern world is that despite a great deal of optimism abounding about, there are social environments where one's very survival appears to be at stake -- whether such survival is physical, spiritual, financial, social, or one's perceived status. In these cases, happiness is very likely not something to be pursued. It just isn't done. It's crass and in many cases, apparently pointless. And in those environments, logotherapy -- i.e. finding a meaning in life -- may demand that happiness can only be encountered as a side effect of surrending to a greater cause or another person or persons. "It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us." [2]

Given this excursion into the darker aspects of the pursuit of happiness, it is reasonable to ask if in other environments -- for example, Latin America's sunnier side of the street -- is happiness a thing one can pursue? Does in fact happiness want to be pursued? Maybe even stalked?

"If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete." [2]

Geez! Get over it, Viktor! Let it go, man. Not all of life is a death camp!

(6/15/2005) Another rather gloomy viewpoint is in Robert Wright's "Dancing to Evolution's Tune." [6] Wright starts off wrong, noting parenthetically that "humans seem to have been created by evolution, not aliens." Wrong on the first count, he then adds that there is not a conscious creator involved, but rather that it's just a process. This flies in the face of irrefutable logic (i.e. Creative Evolutionism), but it does show how a flawed premise -- or a woefully biased paradigm -- can lead one adrift.

Taking the part of purely evolutionary processes to heart, Wright concludes that "happiness is for getting us to use our intestines, ovaries and tesicles. People so reliably pursue food and sex because eating and copulating release neurochemicals that make them feel happy." Thus, "the laws governing happiness were designed not for our psychological well-being but for our genes' long-term survival prospects." [But then who would want to survive if they're miserable, or at least if they don't think they will ever be happy again?]

Wright then goes on to note that "happiness, though designed to materialize under lots of circumstances, is also designed to evaporate." Natural selection is saying effectively, Stay hungry, not happy. Worse yet, "the lure of happiness works best when we're under the illusion that the bliss will persist." "Guess again, sucker! If happiness endured, our genes would do about as well as drug dealers would do if highs lasted forever."

One might conclude therefore that prolonged happiness would be bad for business. Which, when you think about it, is probably true. There's nothing like being contented or blissfully happy to eliminate those primordial urges to go out and buy stuff! One of the primary reasons for the invention of business is apparently to cater to people's unhappiness and their willing to work very hard for spending money just in order to find a way to be happy.

We can see why poor, unhappy Robert and his fellow Les Miserables (except possibly for very brief, temporary moments of joy) have assumed that while we're born for fun, the fun is not going to last. Everything based on genetics is going to logically imply that the pursuit of happiness is futile, if only because the pursuit will never end. Even the religious sources are brought into the picture with the transience of pleasure being a long-standing problem, the never-ending toil for satisfaction a mantra of religious writings, and the only real hope, according to some ancient sources, being to go beyond the illusion and abandon any desire for joy.

And therein lies the seed of the problem. If the pursuit of happiness is goal-oriented, then inasmuch as moments of happiness are fleeting, the goal and end result will never have any staying power (and will often never even be reached). As Robert has pointed out, we're never going to both get there and stay there. But! If the pursuit of happiness is a process, and not just the means to an end, then there are some real possibilities here! If one defines "pursuit" as the chase, hunt, or stalking... you've got a problem. But if the pursuit is one's lifework, then happiness can accompany one for most of the journey.

This is, of course, the fundamental difference between a destination and a journey.

And if there's anything one needs on the journay, it's laughter, that ineradicable part of life. Like, "What else can be so enjoyable, exercise the heart, and boost the mood? What else can serve so well as both a social signal and a conversational lubricant? What else can bond parents to children, siblings to one another and teach powerful lessons about staying alive in a tooth-and-claw world?" [3]

Granted that laughing in front of the Inquisitor might be a questionable idea, but then again, who knows? Did anybody try it? Did anyone ever quote Ecclesiastes:

"Man hath no better thing... than to eat, and to drink and to be merry" in the time "God giveth him under the sun."

It might work. Of course, prior to launching into a rendition of Mario Lanza singing the drinking song, our erstwhile Grand Inquisitor might refer to Chapter 12 of the Gospel According to Luke (verses 16-21):

"And he spake a parable unto them, saying: The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully.

"And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?

And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.

"And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou has much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.

"But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee; then whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?

"So is he that layeth up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God."

The problem here is that the determined sufferer may interpret this passage to imply that "happiness in this life is -- emphatically -- beside the point." [4] This is in fact the interpretation of many who would find suffering to be preferable to enjoyment.

But if one reads on and discovers that the ravens are neither sowing nor reaping -- and are instead relying upon God to feed them -- one begins to realize that the key to Ecclesiastes is to eat, drink and be merry now! (in the time God provides). In other words, this old work til you drop so that in some future time you can take your ease... Bust yourself for forty years and then retire to Florida with lousy health and a pension seriously depleted by corporate theft... That just don't cut it!

The key is to eat, drink and be merry now. Laugh and imitate Lewis Carroll's Tigger with his (or her) irrepressible capering and bouncing about. It's all about exuberance -- accomplishing "great things by applying a restless curiosity, passion for discovery, embrace of nature, and a sense of joy and play." [5] It's time to grab a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread and a consenting adult of whichever gender you prefer. It's pursuit time!

Claudia Wells [7] in the same issue notes: "For most of its history, psychology had concerned itself with all that ails the human mind: anxiety, depression, neurosis, obsessions, paranoia, delusions. The goal of practitioners was to bring patients from a negative, ailing state to a neutral normal... from a minus five to a zero." Another take is "What are the enabling conditions that make human beings flourish? How do we get from zero to plus five?" In effect, mental health "should be more than the absence of mental illness. It should be something akin to a vibrant and muscular fitness of the human mind and spirit."

For example, "Hungarian-born psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheeks sent me high)" [I kid you not!] has talked about "flow, the feeling of complete engagement in a creative or playful activity familiar to athletes, musicians, video-game enthusiasts -- almost anyone who loses himself in a favorite pursuit."

For example... Sex? Maybe not. A Time [7] poll asked how often people did various activities to improve their mood and only 25% of men and 18% of women said sex. [We could make a joke about maybe they're not doing it right, but sex is undoubtedly a bit more complicated than that.] On the other hand, listening to music was a common choice: 52% for men and 55% for women. Meanwhile, praying/meditating scored 38% for men and 51% for women; taking a bath or shower: 35% for men and 47% for women; eating: 25% for men and 24% for women.

Major sources of happiness were inevitably relationships (73 to 77%), controlling one's life and destiny (66%), religious/spiritual life (62%), and holidays (50%). Children and grandchildren was by far the one thing in life which brought the greatest happiness for most people (35%).

Interestingly, Americans in general seem to be making the grade. A Time [7] Poll found that 78% of Americans are happy most or all of the time -- with those making over $100,000 a year the happiest (about 88%, with only 1% of these encountering happiness "not very often"). In terms of life's destiny, 13% figured they were living the best possible life, 37% very good, and 33% good. Furthermore, 79% considered them selves to be optimists, with 80% waking up happy. (Obviously, 1% were surprised to wake up happy!) At the same time, looking forward to something was a big part of happiness -- reminding us of the adage that life is all about having something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for.

It's common folklore that money won't make you happy, but richer people are statistically more likely to be happy. At least to a point. Research has shown that "once your basic needs are met, additional income does little to raise your sense of satisfaction with life." [7] The key, of course, is what constitute's "basic needs"! And inasmuch as feelings that things are improving always contributes to happiness, there is always likely to be an increase in our expectations -- and thus "basic needs" keep increasing and becoming ever more elaborate. It's called evolution.

The curious part is that one researcher [7] thinks of happiness as a "kind of placeholder for a constellation of positive emotional states. It's a state of well-being where individuals are typically not motivated to change their state. They're motivated to preserve it." Thus happiness is in this sense resistance to change, while the sense of things continually improving assumes a priori that change is happening! In fact, the very idea that we can somehow maintain our constant state of happiness, one without change, is fundamentally flawed. The only happy ending is one where there is an ending (i.e. the end of change).

Science has leaped into the happiness field (apparently there's research dollars to be found here!) and now suggests that happiness (feeling good) resides in the left prefrontal cortex -- at least for "certain kinds of happiness". (Like receiving the research grant?) Subjects have reported a positive mood when their left prefrontal cortexes were active. Simultaneously, these subjects also showed lower levels of cortisol, a hormore produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress. Inasmuch as cortisol is known to depress immune functions, it would appear that happiness is conducive to health. In another study, "babies with less activity in the left prefrontal cortex tend to cry when their mothers leave the room; those with more activity stay placid." [7]

For example, "heart-disease rates among men who called themselves optimistic were half the rates for men who didn't." Optimists were also more resistant to premature mortality, cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In fact, hopefulness and curiosity were found to "be protective against hypertension, diabetes and upper-respiratory infection." [7] Obviously the key is to happily enjoy your chocolate, not worry about diabetes, and assume that a happy diet is a good diet.

A significant point in all of this is that the mind body connection is alive and well. It is essential to recognize that happiness is a neurophysiology topic of discussion.

Still, science would insist that "50% of one's satisfaction with life comes from genetic programming. (Genes influence such traits as having a sunny, easygoing personality, dealing well with stress, and feeling low levels of anxiety and depression.)" Much of the rest comes from "life's slings and arrows", while circumstances such as income, marital status, religion and education contribute only about 8% to one's overall well-being. "It may be that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller."

On the other hand, it may also be a matter of "allocation of attention". What one focuses on increases. In other words, an optimist is someone who believes that this is the best of all possible worlds, while a pessimist is someone who fears that this is true!

Inasmuch as relationships tend to more likely make us happy than other things, we might want to concentrate on improviing our relationships. One way is with gratitude and appreciation, even though science has rained on this parade as well, noting that writing letters of gratitude may make one measurably happier and less depressed a month later, the effect is gone by three months. Obviously, such activities must be ongoing (and not a miracle pill to cure all ills taken once). Life is a continuing thing, and the pursuit of happiness is a life long pursuit.

Finally, as has been noted in the treatise on wisdom,

"This being human is a guest-house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

"Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they're a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond." [Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273)]

And don't forget a trip or two to the Land of Awe. It's really good for the soul.



[1] Walter Kirn, "It's a Glad, Sad, Mad World", Time Magazine, January 17, 2005.

[2] Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning; An Introduction to Logotherapy, A Touchstone Book, Simon & Schuster, New York, Third Edition, 1984.

[3] Jeffrey Kluger, "The Funny Thing about Laughter," Time Magazine, January 17, 2005.

[4] David Van Biema, "Does God Want Us to Be Happy?", Time Magazine, January 17, 2005.

[5] Mimi Harrison, "Beyond Happy? You're Exuberant!", Time Magazine, January 17, 2005.

[6] Robert Wright, "Dancing to Evolution's Tune," Time Magazine, January 17, 2005.

[7] Claudia Wallis, "The New Science of Happiness," Time Magazine, January 17, 2005.


Wisdom         Forgiveness         Declaration of Independence

Philosophers on Wheels

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The Fool's Journey         Bozo-Sattva         Desiderata

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy



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