Pursuit of Happiness
In the last ten years, there have been a spate of books published on the nature of happiness. Most of these books point out that happiness is not only possible, but it is the American way. In fact, the “pursuit of happiness” is the basis of the Declaration of Independence, it’s our Constitutional right.
Unfortunately, after starting out on such a lofty philosophical note, many of these books go on to say that there is a single prescription for happiness that all of us can achieve. All you have to do is: Accept yourself! Accept others! Let go! Hold on! Be more assertive! Be less assertive! Eat more fiber! Eat more protein! Exercise more! Get more! Do with less! Read more! Be (fill in the blank)!
David Malouf, Australia’s most celebrated living author, has just published yet another happiness tome called The Happy Life, and he says that Thomas Jefferson got it right, but the rest of us got it wrong. Happiness, says Malouf, is not “a thing”, “a state of affairs”, “a particular achievement”. One is not happy if one is rich, but dying of cancer; or famous, but unloved; or a Nobel prize winner whose family dies in a crash in route to the awards ceremony. Happiness, says Malouf, is a process, but with no constitutional guarantees.
Happiness, says Malouf, is a “series of small mercies”. It is the pursuit of many and various things. Happiness is a personal quest, and it is also totally dependent on time, place, circumstance, and attitude. There are no sure things. There is no absolute standard or litmus paper test to determine personal happiness. Happiness is always relative and dependent on time, place, and mental attitude. What Jefferson and our Founders were talking about in the Declaration is that government has an obligation to guarantee the right and ability of people to “pursue happiness”. But there are no guarantees that it can actually be achieved.
Unfortunately, what most of us don’t want to accept, says David Malouf, is that most of us suffer from “over reach”. We expect to be happy. We demand the right to be happy, and we refuse to accept the possibility that “complete happiness” is too complex of an idea to actually achieve. Most of us will not accept the fact that we can be “happy enough”, but never “quite perfectly happy”. And sadly, when we are not “perfectly happy”, we deny that we are happy at all.
For Malouf, happiness is not an all or nothing kind of thing. Happiness is not “a day without a single cloud”. The turmoil of any given day can us leave with much to complain about. Happiness is about the accumulation of experiences and efforts of a life fully lived. In the end, happiness is the byproduct of many things: luck, circumstance, hardwork, timing and one’s DNA. There is no magic formula, there is no single prescription.
Like Aristotle, Malouf does not believe that happiness is all or nothing affair. If life is a long process and pursuit, like Aristotle, he believes that you cannot fully judge a person happy until they are dead!