The Pursuit of Happiness

Sometimes I wonder if happiness is the highest virtue, or if there is not something higher. Often times we live our lives as though the pursuit of happiness was the highest pursuit that we can attain, but what if it is not? I have to ask whether or not the pursuit of happiness is a noble goal or whether it is a tyrant upon the soul. Not that there is not value or even goodness to be found in happiness, to be happy is a very good thing, what I ask, however, is whether the pursuit of it is worth the cost to our souls. I think that contentment is a higher state of well-being than happiness, to be content is different I think, than being happy. Contentment accepts circumstance much more readily than does happiness. Happiness is more akin to a vapor, it comes and goes with the wind, but is largely to do with circumstances outside of oneself, where contentment is much more about the circumstances inside. The key to contentment is found primarily in gratitude, and in humility.

There is, I think, a form of tyranny in the pursuit of happiness, something that says that it is wrong to not be happy, to feel sadness, or even sorrow. It also tells us that ought to always pull ourselves up again, even though sometimes we’ve been beaten down so badly, we do not even remember how to look up. I believe the pursuit of happiness to be a tragic one, a cruel pursuit really. It’s not that I wish to feel sad, or sorrowful, but I do want to feel emotion.

Emotion above almost all other things open our hearts to empathy, the mind is too cold and rational to bother with anything outside of itself, it is efficient in the sense of cutting itself off from all that it deems to be not important to the task at hand, but it is cold in terms of our relating to other people. It was once believed that a mind detached from emotion would be a cool mind and one more in tune with truth, justice, and so forth, but it is a cold mind, and the coldness of the mind always turns the heart cold with it. The pursuit of happiness, like the mind, tells us to disregard what is deemed to be undesirable emotions, rather than embracing them as part of the human experience, part of what it is that makes us human beings to begin with.

Human beings are designed to be empathetic creatures, perhaps it is why we have emotion in the first place. I see the result of cold minds and the pursuit of happiness. Together they create monsters. People with cold hearts pursuing happiness often times are those who are interested in ‘getting their own way’ and little else. Those who are out to get their slice of the pie, if you will, and their neighbors too if they can get away with it. We ask what would compel someone to take something from somebody else, for example, in a robbery. I think it is the pursuit of happiness in the hands of a cold heart that more often than not is to blame. It’s hard to say exactly why this is, and what it all means, but it remains doubtless a reality of the human heart. Yet, it is also true that people are more complex than a single aspect, and while a dominate characteristic of these folks is to seek to look out for the most important person in their view, themselves, there is usually some aspect to them that is far more complex. It is difficult to find a human so totally given over to evil that there is not something good to be found in them.

What I’m trying to say is that while happiness is important, I think we err to make it the chief goal of our lives, and in many ways, I think it deprives us of the fullness of our experience to do so. There is value in both the light and the darkness, the day and the night, the joy and the sorrow.

I am a human being, and as such, I experience things, some of those experiences are good, and others are not, and while we sometimes can choose to improve our experiences, often times, we cannot. Circumstances can lie outside of our ability to control them, and we cannot become so unfeeling as to remain entirely emotionally detached from them even if we wish to be. And when we do succeed in doing so, what we find is not a state of peace, but something more akin to a state of torment.

Another thing I think that we err to do is to be so independent that we no longer concern ourselves with our fellow human beings. We are fundamentally, if you will, community centered creatures. Or tribal, if that word suits you better, the point is, we do need each other. in my own country, however, we value our independence so much that we pretty much cut ourselves off from everyone around us, and even in the closest of relationships, we have a notion of our own personal space, or something to that effect. I understand, sometimes it is necessary to be alone, and solitude can be, and is, extremely valuable. No, what I question is whether it is wise to have an entire civilization given over to it on a permanent basis. We need each other. I think the greatest danger to American civilization is fragmentation, when it comes to a point of taking our independent spirit too far. Granted, some wonderful things have taken place at the hands of Americans, I also acknowledge that some terrible things have as well. There is a long, sad, trail of American atrocities, stretching from its beginnings all the way until today. There is not much we can do about our past, it is done, but we can take care about our future. We can learn from our own evils, and in so doing, turn aside from committing them further. It is not that I do not love my own country, I do, but I do not wish to let patriotism blind me from its faults. It may seem the better thing in the moment, but in the end, it is a much greater disservice to it. I am not so blind to the whole of human history as to not believe that we are not as capable as every other civilization of not only rising to a hight so high as to soar upon eagle’s wings, but falling so far into the abyss as to never rise again. We have a story, as people, but also as a community, and as a civilization. Not all such stories have to end badly, but many do. What will ours be? I think much of our independence stems from our pursuit of personal happiness. We believe, wrongly, I think, that we are happiest when we have a universe of our own to command. I don’t think we find happiness there, I think we find a taste of Hell.

We have much to decide, but one of the things we do have the power to do, in the moment, is to reach out, to love our neighbor. To forget the ‘American Dream’ that is robbing us of our ‘Human Reality’.

  • I think we should replace “pursuit of happiness” as a goal with pursuit of meaning. Happiness is too nebulous and ephemeral. The more happiness is pursued, the more unlikely it will ever be found. It’s like chasing after the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Contentment or joy are both better and more permanent than happiness.

    I think you are right about it being a taste of Hell. If you control everything in a universe, even if there are “people” around you, they’re just puppets of your own mind, like Aulë’s dwarves, and you are utterly and completely alone and also unrescueable. Love could not exist in a world where there was only one person. Surprises and adventure could not exist if everything always went your way. It’s hard to understand sometimes why anyone would desire this. I think most of the time they don’t realize what they’re asking for.

    Attempting to avoid every possibility of discomfort or unpleasant experience, is in itself a bad experience, the worst experience, the one to be avoided over all others. Someone who spends their energy on their fear of being made unhappy will be so busy with worrying that they’ll never experience true happiness at all.

    Good post. :)

    • Shane Deal

      Thank you for your reply and saying that it is a good post! I apologize that it has taken me few days to reply back.

      Contentment and joy are both better and more permanent. Happiness, humm, what I mean by the pursuit of it, I suppose is more of the state of expectation of having it. To be honest, that one MUST be happy or something is wrong with you, so we pursue happiness, hoping desperately perhaps, that something isn’t wrong with us. If that makes sense. But, I think you’re right: Happiness is too nebulous and ephemeral. That is quite true. Oh, wait, I think might have just realized I was reading your first part wrong: Was it a critique of the idea of pursuit of happiness with equally critiqued idea of the pursuit of meaning? That was how I read it the first few times, or is it more of a contrast?

      I’m going to assume it was contrast that was meant as I reply here: The pursuit of meaning, I think, is a better goal than happiness. Meaning, ultimately can be found. I do not know if I am correct, but I believe that ultimately all the deepest meanings of things are found in Christ: For example, beauty, beauty is very meaningful, so, according to how I see it, beauty ultimately finds its source in Christ. Same with truth, and with goodness, and other things as well. The pursuit of meaning, I think is a pursuit more likely to lead us to the source of the meaningful things, rather than happiness, which tends to lead us away, and towards a hellishness, though not necessarily Hell itself.

      If it is the pursuit of meaning that is being suggested as being a worthy goal, than yes, I wholeheartedly agree! However, the first time I read it, I thought you meant that the pursuit of meaning could be equally disastrous, if that is the case, I think I can understand how that could be the case, after all, any number of falsehoods have come from a pursuit of deeper meaning, I can see how that could be as problematic as pursuing happiness can be.

      I think you’re right about control, love, surprise, adventure, and such. Unrescueable and alone. I have grown rather more critical of some theological positions in the considerations of the nature of these exact notions, but I do not see how the controlling deity presented in these schools of thought can be a moral deity, unless there are two standards of morality, and one applies to man, while another to the god, but if that is the case, neither is a correct morality, one morality must apply to both gods and men alike, or it ceases to be morality. I can think of only one response that can be right in the face of an immoral god: That is to rebel against that deity with every fiber of your being. Even if it is hopeless, rebellion against an immoral deity would be taking the higher moral road, but then if man and god have separate moralities, than it would be that man would be the definer of his own, and would be little better off for rebelling as for not in terms of what is righteous and what is not. I cannot accept these theological positions as being a legitimate expression of the Christian faith, or acceptable as a faith apart from Christianity. It’s not that I deny the sovereignty of God, I question it being at the expense of his morality, and the consequences that come from denying a universal morality that applies to God and man alike. For centuries, the idea of control has been a very seductive one, and it has been the father of many dictatorships atrocities and so forth. Control is ultimately about the dominion of one man over another man, and that is not supposed to happen. Dominion appeals, control appeals, because it is fear that fuels it. Love and control do not work well together, but fear is the natural ally of control. The troubling story of what happened to Christianity once the idea of control took root is a sad one, and the long trail of atrocities that have followed still continue to this day. Even the destinies of other faiths may have been altered radically from where they ended up today if not for these notions. Christianity was never meant to be a faith spread by the sword, but by the sword it was spread and we still fight the wars sparked by it to this day. The desire of control is the belief that it can tame the fear of the loss of it, but only love can tame fear. Love doesn’t control, it’s not its nature, which is part of why I bring it up, above about the morality of gods and men being different, being problematic. When I say gods I do so because I cannot in good conscience ascribe unholy attributes to a Holy God, not because there is more than one God, if that makes sense.

      I wonder often whether pain is a teacher or a tormenter, on one hand I see the value in refinement, an pain can refine quite well, my darkest moments have nearly always produced my deepest and most brilliant treasures. On the other hand I can see how it would be a tormenter, an experience we were not designed to feel. I think that attempting to avoid every possibility of discomfort, and such, however, does not help us, it does hinder. In this consideration, I come back to the notion of pain as a teacher over that of pain as a tormenter, but it is a notion that is constantly challenged, and I do not expect to ever find a resolution to the problem of pain. It is one of the few problems in life that throwing God into the picture only makes it more perplexing. Not that perplexing is in itself bad, but it is a troublesome musing that the more one considers the goodness of God, the more perplexed one is by the problem of pain in light of it. It is pain and suffering more than any other thing that makes the goodness of God the most difficult part of my faith for me to accept. I have no problem with God being great. I have difficulty with him being good, if that makes sense.

      That said, on my own, I do tend to try to find the ‘perceived easiest road’ but the troublesome part about attempting to avoid discomfort, unpleasant experiences, etc. is that you miss out on anything and everything that is of any value at all. I suppose life is rather like being born. For an infant it is a rather traumatic experience, we often come screaming, but we cannot live or grow without it. Yet, often as we grow older we tend to go out of our way to avoid the very things that we need to grow and live. An unhappy fate indeed, not that we should necessary go looking for trouble, or keep ourselves in a troublesome place, there is value in safety too.