The Pursuit of Happiness

At dinner last week I started a story by saying, “I was listening to a podcast today…” I hadn’t finished the sentence when my daughter cut me off and said, “We need to create a drinking game. Every time mom says ‘podcast’ you have to drink a shot.”

No, she’s not legal. Yes, I listen to a lot of podcasts.

The podcast I was listening to was TED Radio Hour Simply Happy. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of happiness for a long time and I spend a fair amount of time thinking about my own life and happiness. Like most of us, I expect.

When I think about happiness, I tend to focus on one line from the Declaration of Independence: “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.” And, because I have led my fair share of word smithing exercises with groups of people, I like to imagine what it must have been like in the room when they debated (as I am sure they did) one thing: Is it the inalienable right to Happiness or the pursuit of Happiness?

It’s a hard question, because if I had my way everyone would be happy. But the reality is that what makes individuals happy varies drastically. One person likes the busy city, another finds refuge in the country. One gets joy from solitude, another from the crush of family and friends. Some enjoy fast-paced work, others are happier sitting for hours on the business side of a fishing pole. Studies say you should eat more, eat less, run more, run less, stress more, stress less.

So, in the end I agree with the framers. Everyone has the right to pursue their happiness, whatever that is.

When I was younger, I thought differently. I naively thought that I knew best, I thought that what made me happy would or could make everyone happy. I considered it my job to try to convince people that they were not as happy as they could be. Even if they thought they were happy, I knew better. I finally realized that if I really cared about people being happy I needed to trust them to lead their own pursuits, take their own path. And although occasionally I see someone else’s path to happy and wonder about it (Would that make me happy? Why? Why not?) it is intrigue, not judgement.

The only problem is this: what happens when my pursuit of happiness crashes into your pursuit of happiness? What happens when I like to pinch you, but you don’t like to be pinched? Or if I like to drive 100mph down the expressway without stopping and you are scared to share the road? And what do you do when people’s happiness is connected to big world beliefs that are at odds: colonialism versus self-rule, shared ancestry versus white supremacy, patriarchy versus feminism. Michigan versus Ohio State.

Things can go bad pretty quickly when beliefs crash into each other.

But you know what I’ve observed? Beliefs alone can crash with very little collateral damage. I have different beliefs than many people and yet they still support my pursuit of happiness. It’s only when belief leads to action and action leads to attack that things go bad. And that is when it gets hard. When individuals and society have to make choices about whose happiness is more important. Those are pivotal  points in a person’s life or in a country’s history. Because sometimes it means leaning in and sometimes it means walking away. Sometimes you lose something or someone that matters.

Recently, I found myself in that situation. I found someone’s beliefs changing in ways I hadn’t anticipated and couldn’t imagine. Those beliefs led to action and the action turned into an attack. I’m not sure the attack was even intended, and I know that the beliefs are deeply held and sincere, but nonetheless it hurt me a lot. I was stunned and paralyzed. In my brain I tried to find an answer, something that would let us both continue our pursuit of happiness. I cried when I realized I was out of solutions and reminded myself of the framers and their words.

And then I chose the Pursuit of Happiness. I’m going to do my best to get there.

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