Monday, August 30, 2010

Pursuit of Happiness

A blog I read recently about the misguided idealization of "Liberty" has coincided with some family issues going on in my life, and got me thinking about the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Sure, I am Canadian through and through, but let's face it, Canadian culture is greatly influenced by this ideal. Our own Charter of Rights & Freedoms essentially strives toward the same goal, at least in the ways the Charter is being interpreted in courtrooms across Canada today. The focus today is not as heavily on true equality as it is on the assurance of individual rights.

This cultural idea that every individual has the fundamental right to do as they please and pursue their own happiness is so ingrained in our society that mere children are being molded into this image of individual entitlement. You see it in the 8 year old throwing a tantrum in WalMart because his mommy said "no" to a new toy... and too often she ends up giving in. You see it in the imbecilic teenager who recklessly careens down the freeway, careless of all fellow drivers. You even see it in the ignorant jerk who sits in his car at the gas pump, fiddling interminably with his radio and cellphone and giving rude gestures to the long lineup of cars waiting to fuel up.

When children are brought up being taught that they have Rights, Privileges, and Freedoms... without being taught just as emphatically that they also have Responsibilities, Duties, and Obligations... we create conditions that cultivate sociopathy as a way of life. And that, dear readers, does not cultivate happiness.

Happiness is found in giving, not in getting, according to an 80 year study started in the 1920s in California. Apparently it really is better to give than to receive. Unfortunately, studies have also shown that greater wealth results in greater ability to give, indicating that perhaps money really can buy happiness. The reality is that not all of us will be wealthy. Some may never even have enough material wealth to give at all... does this mean that happiness is unattainable for the poorest of the poor and downtrodden?

For most people, happiness is circumstantial: A person is happy about receiving a gift, making a friend, or achieving a goal. But what about when circumstances, frankly, suck. You lose your job, your investments fail, your husband leaves you, your child is killed, and you ask yourself "how can I ever be happy again?" Some of my most beloved authors, including John Milton and C. S. Lewis, have found themselves at the end of their rope, or at the bottom of the barrel, and there nonetheless have been (as Lewis puts it) surprised by joy.

Joy, that inexplicable sense of calm and contentment despite circumstances, is available to anyone, anywhere, any time. In the book of Habakkuk, chapter 3, the writer says
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines,though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.

While happiness is fleeting, joy lasts. Our society doesn't want you to have it, because it wants to sell you happiness which has a short shelf life, something you'll have to buy again and again. Maybe that's why the American Constitution guarantees not "happiness" but "the pursuit of happiness"... because happiness is an elusive prey... and don't forget, a capitalist economy depends on endless expenditure in this pursuit. The propaganda of dissatisfaction is big business!  But joy cannot be quenched by misfortune or tragedy, and cannot be bought with credit or gold. It can't be found in a mall, a cruise ship, or a mansion; it's priceless and it's free. So as for me, forget happiness, I'm pursuing joy.

1 comment:

  1. It's like I say to stangers who comment on the fact that I'm singing (seemingly) to myself:
    "You're awfully happy."
    "I don't put much stock on happiness. Happiness is a funny joke or a tasty cookie... I prefer joy. It's a lot more reliable!"
    A good post, HD. Sorry I'm replying so long after its authorship.



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