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The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Terrible Ideas

My friend Cody, now moved on to the greener pastures that is Santa Cruz, California, recently finished his PhD in psychology here at ND. His dissertation was, I thought, a provocative study: can we directly cause happiness? Or is the “pursuit” of happiness through specific actions futile? His research seemed to indicate that we can indeed influence our happiness to some degree by specific goals, but might I’m still not totally convinced (nor is he). Something about the “pursuit of happiness” I always found a bit unsettling,  thought I could never quite put my finger on it.

Enter this recent essay I read by Adam Phillips on the “happiness myth.” It is too big to adequately summarize here, but essentially, Phillips suggests that our desire for happiness and our insistence of the right of its pursuit might not be a desire for happiness at all, but the next best thing to being “abosrbed” (that is, fully invested in some other passion or pursuit). Yet when that absorbtion is frustrated, we turn to that ever mysteirous “happiness.”

“For better and for worse, being able to feel our frustration is the precondition for becoming absorbed. When this is impossible the pursuit of happiness tends to take over. The right to pursue happiness may be, at its worst, the right not to feel frustrated. And if frustration is not allowed to take its course, to take its time, there is no absorption, only refuges from unhappiness. The child is fobbed off with happiness when what she really wants is to get her appetite back. The right to the pursuit of happiness can be a cover story for the wish to hide”

Its an interesting argument with lots of other good points. It got me thinking again about what it means to “pursue” happiness. As Phillips points out, happiness appears to be quite subjective, personal, and idiosyncratic. Some people, abhorent has it sounds, find great pleasure in lots of terrible things: abuse, theft, destruction, etc. This makes a government’s attempts to protect the pursuit of happiness so difficult and troubling: it can be justified to prohibit or allow almost any range of activities. “The pursuit of happiness, like the pursuit of liberty – the utopian political projects of the 20th century – has legitimated some of the worst crimes of contemporary history across the political spectrum.” Et tu, Jefferson?

This isn’t a railing against Jefferson: his lines are still amongst the most inspired and inspiring in American literature. But what is it about that phrase that is so disconcerting?

I think my feelings on it tie in with my the idea of the “pursuit of truth.” At face value, both are noble causes, but they are ultimately undermined by the assumption that there is an end to the road, that there is some final destination where we can plant our flag and say, at last, “Aha! Truth!” or “Here it is! Happiness!” That yearning for security, that hunger for a place where we can finally rest from our pursuits and obtain the prize is, I feel, contradictory. We pursue so that we can someday settle; we chase so that we can eventually rest. But if our ultimate goal is to settle and rest, why wait? How can our goal be different, even contradictory, from the means of getting there?

In my mind, the pursuit of happiness or the pursuit of truth are misnomers: I think we are better off thinking of them as “the way of happiness” or the “way of truth” or something along those lines (what’s the BofM line? “After the manner of happines?” Not bad). It emphasizes that happiness and truth are not ultimate ends by moments found along the way, gems that we admire, enjoy, and treasure before marching on. It recognizes that happiness is never achieved but stumbled upon, that it is lost almost as quickly as it is discovered. When will this journey stop? Heck, why would we <i>want<\i> it to stop? Isn’t that what we’re here for? It cuts out the allure of security offered by a pursuit but, in my mind, resolves the contradiction that pursuit entails.

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