In a previous post, entitled “carlotta’s wisdom,” I shared with you three pieces of excellent advice passed on to me by my dear friend Carlotta, who has since passed. One was this:
If you’re expecting someone else to make you happy, you never will be.
Shortly thereafter, in “the making of mad,” I presented a further suggestion:
No one can make you mad.
If this is true – that no one can make you happy or, in effect, steal your happiness – then where does happiness come from. How do we find it?
Having just celebrated another 4th of July, it brings to mind what is perhaps the most famous sentence from the Declaration of Independence, adopted by Congress on July 4, 1776:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The pursuit of happiness.
It’s obvious (“self-evident”).
Why, it’s downright American.
And it’s my right, doggonit.
The only problem is, I don’t know if it’s even possible.
Actually, let me reconsider. The pursuit of – well, anything – is possible, come to think of it.
You can, for instance, pursue being legally adopted by the Queen of England. And if you believe said royal adoption will bring you happiness, then we might say you are pursuing happiness. And, I suppose that the pursuit of this adoption is your right. However, the Queen may hardly see it as self-evident, and I don’t think this is merely by virtue of the fact that she resides on the other side of The Pond. Moreover, your pursuit ending as you had hoped is bloody unlikely.
Or you may pursue the ability to be invisible. And that is likewise your right, if you really want to pursue it. You are welcome to read books about achieving the power of invisibility. You can try to repeat experiments from comic books that might have resulted in invisibility. Or you can sit on your bed, screw your eyes tightly shut, ball up your fists and just try really hard to be invisible. You can even cry when you open your eyes, red-faced and panting, to find that, alas, you are still opaque (in all senses of the word).
All of this is well within your rights to pursue. But the right to pursue something does not in any way imply a right to catch up with it. Or even the possibility of doing so. Just ask the pining or lovelorn teen come prom time. Really wanting something doesn’t guarantee you the right to get it.
I was left pondering, over brunch with my friend Justin today, why one must pursue happiness in the first place. Is it a moving target? Is it running away from me?
What seems clear is that pursuing something means that I am chasing something I don’t already have. And if I don’t have something, but I want it enough to be running around to catch it, then I am by definition – not content.
I’ve been sharing quotes in recent posts. With talk of our forefathers still ringing, here’s another quote that seems apropos:
Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of filling a vacuum, it makes one.
~ Benjamin Franklin
In addition to the idea that no one can make you happy, nothing can make you happy. The more you pursue – the more you chase the things you believe you must have in order to be happy – the more elusive happiness becomes. It’s the classical tale of Tantalus, reaching for fruit and water that remained ever just out of reach.
What’s worse – much worse most often it seems – would be to actually catch up with the object of your pursuit. Bring to mind the number of lottery winners who chased a dream, believing that if only they could be lucky enough to possess it, they would finally be happy. And how many, after winning, have fallen into utter depression – or worse.
As Benjamin Franklin observed, the hole doesn’t get filled. Rather new holes are created.
It’s been my own observation that unhappy (or unkind or selfish) people don’t miraculously become more happy (or kind or generous) when they finally get the higher-paying job or start that new relationship or move to another state. Chase as one might, wherever you go … there you are.
How do we find happiness, then?
Among the many books around my bedside is one on happiness. The basic premise is that the word “happy” doesn’t mean anything at all really, because it is completely relative. What “happy” means to me is very likely not what “happy” means to you. So if your ex tells you that she is so excited because she just started dating someone else, you may say, “I’m happy for you.” But what do you mean?
Do you mean that you feel the same way you do when you have a banana split?
Or the same way you might if you won the lottery?
Do you mean that you can imagine how you might feel if you were the one who’d found a new lover instead?
Or that you are actually sad and bitter, but you’re not supposed to just come right out and say such a thing?
It all leaves me wondering if new terms might be in order. What if, rather than aiming for happiness, we aimed for something else instead?
What if we aimed for contentment?
Contentment implies that I do not feel driven by the need to pursue anything more than what I already have. It does not mean that I cannot ever have any more than I currently do, or dream big and go after goals, only that my sense of well-being is not determined by that pursuit. If I get there, great. If I don’t, wonderful. I recognize that I already have all I need – more than I need.
For many, this may require some honest and difficult reassessment of what the word “need” means.
Chad and I were talking this week about poverty. The fact is that those living at or below the poverty level in America are still better off than 97% of the world’s population. The vast majority of those living at poverty level have at least one vehicle, air conditioning, color television and a microwave oven. More than half have Internet and cell phone coverage.
This is not a political commentary on my part. It is merely a reminder that contentment is likely easier to come by than we might like to suppose.
I might add to contentment the pursuit of purpose.
It’s interesting that, among all of the famous and inspiring quotes I’ve ever read, I can’t recall there being a single one that had to do with getting more X, Y or Z for yourself.
No, the timeless quotes – those that continue to inspire long after the speaker has passed – are those which remind us that the pursuit of more for me isn’t a purpose at all.
I don’t think this is coincidental.
So, what if my goal changed?
What if it were no longer the pursuit of things or situations or people that I believe I need in order to make me happy?
What if it were learning to be thankful for and content with what I already have?
What if it were to be more focused on what I can give instead of what I can get?
I wonder if contented people, aiming for a purpose grander than themselves, just might hit upon happiness without ever really trying.