Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Pursuit of Happiness (excerpt from A REAL LIFE)

The Pursuit of Happiness

“If only we’d stop trying to be happy we’d have a pretty good time.”
—Edith Wharton

The most universally admired part of the United States Declaration of Independence, penned by the Founding Fathers and adopted by Congress on July 4, 1776, reads:

“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.”

That noble sentence had but one oversight; while the meaning of “Life” and “Liberty” is pretty “self-evident,” most of us haven’t the faintest clue of what they meant by “Happiness,” or why, even more bafflingly, it has to be pursued, like some mischievous puppy that ran off with your slippers.

For decades we were convinced that happiness was the American Dream in which even a child of two had his own flat screen TV, where nearly every family owned a half-empty McMansion, at least one SUV, and an RV rooted firmly in the driveway; where we could sing in our underwear and make twenty million dollars, or whack a ball over the fence and make forty; or, if we traded our minds in for a pocket calculator, we could put our name on hotels and skyscrapers, and have a TV show teaching apprentice barracudas, and no one would say to our faces that a double comb-over is an indisputable sign of being terminally crazy.

In short, we all seemed to have been part of a silent conspiracy in which we agreed that the Founding Fathers had blown it, and through a slip of the pen wrote “Happiness” when they actually meant “Money.” We felt Joan Rivers spoke for us all when she quipped, “People say that money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you have enough money, you can have a key made.”

So we all chased wealth while we largely neglected, or considered secondary, the health of our ideals, the nourishment of our children’s minds and bodies, the honesty and integrity of our institutions of government and religion, the safety of our infrastructures, hospitals and schools, the strength of our social fabric, of our neighborhoods and family, and that much-maligned stepchild—whose air, water and soil are the essence of all life—our environment.

While some of us found these neglects profoundly disturbing, we kept our mental equilibrium by pointing with pride at our standard of living thanks to a robust economy. But now that the economy has been flushed down the toilet, and is on its way to some white sand beach where it will sit next to tar-balls from oil spills, and undereducated bimbos, perhaps the time has come to ask, “What the hell do we do now?”

The world has envied and embraced whatever we North Americans dreamed up from junk food to junk bonds, from i-this and i-that to five dollar coffee in a paper cup. It seems it’s time we dream up, a different kind of dream because mindless mass production and mass consumption seem to be leading us to social, environmental and economic dead ends. Perhaps it’s time to admit to ourselves that despite our giant cars and houses—both of which are twice as big as Grandpa’s when he was young—and despite our pants and U-Store-its bursting at the seams, we are not one iota happier, but much more frantic than dear Grandpa.

Perhaps it’s time to sit down for a good heart-to-heart with the one person who can really make a difference: our self. Perhaps it’s time to ask a few unnerving questions like what really counts in life. What is true success? Is it the heft of our portfolio or the irrepressible laughter of our children? What makes us feel secure, proud, or fulfilled, and when, if ever, do we feel truly independent? Maybe we should re-examine our sacred cows: our jobs and careers; houses and neighborhoods; the way we make our foods and the way we eat them; our system of democracy that admittedly yields the best politicians money can buy; how we spend our free time, what we call entertainment; how we really want to live; and what we’d like to leave behind when we die. The answers might just lead us to a calmer way of life centered on our communities, with our family, real friends, and where “Happiness” will no longer need to be “pursued,” but will be all around us, like the air.

Think about the lines of W. Beran Wolfe, who in the 1930s wrote, “If you observe a really happy man you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under the radiator.”

My new shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines happiness as “deep pleasure in, or contentment with, one’s circumstances.”

Through much of history, we humans were a simple lot whose pleasures and fulfillment came from two basic sources: the natural world around us and each other. Both were available at no cost and in limitless supply.

We knew and understood our world: plants and animals, seasons and rains, knew how they could feed us, knew how they could hurt us. Nature’s ever-changing beauty fascinated us; her mysteries in turn terrified and thrilled us.

Meanwhile, people—friends, family, co-workers, neighbors—were by and large the highlights of our lives. Whether on a stroll down a village street or at a Sunday picnic, or an evening in the town square, on a park bench or in a bar; or having a game of cards at the kitchen table; or just sitting and gossiping in front of our caves, on our front porches, we were happy to be together, to exchange lousy jokes and great ideas, to share good times and bad, to enjoy each other’s company.

And our fulfillment, whether material or emotional, came often from ourselves. We took pride in what we made with our hands: grew, hunted, or cobbled together in the home, in the meal we cooked from scratch, in clothing we weaved, sewed or knitted.

But since the seventies or eighties, our attention and our passions seemed to have veered. We diverted our compass course away from relationships, from humanity, from both nature and people, and away, most notably, from the work of our own two hands, toward a perpetually zealous, nearly worshipful accumulation of goods: gear, gadgets and trinkets. Things. And they weren’t things that we thought up, or grew, or cooked, or made, but things that we merely paid for. Bought.

When we weren’t buying or working toward buying, or thinking about buying, we filled what time was left with things that pretended to be real life and real people: television, video games and electronic friends. The real people, the ones you could touch and hug, seemed to vanish from our lives, replaced by the “virtual”—which is the virtual word for fake.

You could at this point shrug your shoulders and say, “So what? That’s progress, things change. The strong survive.” And I’m the first to admit that it’s a daunting task to try and weigh the benefits of this sea change against the damage it has done. But since, as most of us sense in our heart of hearts, we are in a profound state of economic and social disillusion, this might be the perfect time to look at the way we live and compare our modern, virtual existence to the one that, for millennia, we called Life.

The aim is not to find fault but, rather, to first comprehend what has taken place, and then to rediscover and recapture the simple joys we’ve lost; the happiness and fulfillment we once found—without web surfing or pursuit—in our daily lives.

* * *

A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness is available through W. W. Norton and or wherever books and ebooks are sold. For more about the author, please visit

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