the pursuit of happiness revisited

“All men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The Declaration of Independence listed some inalienable rights, including among others, the pursuit of happiness.

It suggests that these rights comes from the Creator, not the government  And it also suggests that such a right does not guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it.

Like every freedom, this pursuit is easily abused.  It guarantees “civil marriage between two loving adults” according to Mary Jo Kilroy over at the The Huff Post, for example.  And many divorces hinge on the idea that we deserve to be happy.

I’m not using these examples to discuss gay marriage or serial polygamy, though I’m not a fan of either.  I’m using them to illustrate that the pursuit of happiness easily becomes  self-focused, a right to reorder things so we get what we want.

What we want is what we love, of course.  And our desires say more about our character than our words, although at some level they coalesce.   Eventually what we say reveals the “thoughts and intents of our hearts,”  revealing what we believe makes us happy.

But to say happiness is getting what I want is to overlook a range of other more promising possibilities.  Like underindulgence, rather than overindulgence.  In most cases, getting less makes you happier than getting more.

Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, authors of the forthcoming book Happy Money: The Science of Spending, cite three studies:

  • People who ate all the chocolate they wanted for a week enjoyed it much less than those who gave it up for a week.
  • People how spent a random $20 gift on others were more satisfied than those who spent it on themselves.
  • Toddlers who gave their goldfish crackers to a monkey puppet were much happier than those who kept the crackers for themselves.

The problem is not that we pursue happiness; the problem is we pursue it in the wrong way.  This is exactly the point of the Beatitudes, where Jesus says the poor, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure and the peacemakers are the happiest of all.  Even the persecuted.

The path to happiness is often through waiting and then appreciating, through giving and not getting.  This is the real happiness gap. The gospel, it seems, turns happiness on its head.  Indeed, Christ gave himself “for the joy that was set before him.”

So perhaps the pursuit of happiness envisioned by the Declaration was rooted in service to others and civic responsibility. Perhaps they never envisioned a right to what you want, but rather the pursuit of a public good.

Or perhaps they just understood how good it feels to give away your goldfish.

That works too.

[This post, from the archives, was originally posted as the third of a series on happiness on July 11, 2012. My thoughts about the happiness gap begin here.]

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