The fundamental ethos of the United States of America is ‘pursuit of happiness.’ Life and liberty are almost secondary, though, granted, required for such a pursuit. But the pursuit itself is what it’s all about. As if plagued by an insatiable hunger and parched of thirst, the pursuit of happiness is a maddening race to ill-being and frustration with life.
The problem is twofold; one, the meaning of happiness. What is happiness? The origin of the word, from Old Norse and Old English, in about the 14th century, is ‘hap’ and means ‘luck’ or ‘chance.’ Luck is not something you pursue; it is happenstance. The concept of happiness has changed over the centuries and through cultures. How would a native of two thousand years ago be happy? Happiness is, today, generally defined as ‘a state of well-being and contentment.’ Without any pursuit, many people experience moments of happiness everyday, without even knowing they are happy at the time. Happiness is more a by-product than anything definitive that can be pursued.
The second problem with this American ethos is ‘pursuit.’ If you recall those moments of your own happiness, it did not involve pursuit. Or, if it was in the act of pursuit, the happiness experienced was because the goal of pursuit was forgotten. Happiness was not the objective. And there it was. The pursuit of happiness is like chasing a rainbow. The more you approach, the more it recedes. There may be moments of thrilling excitement and enjoyable fun in the pursuit, there can be enthusiasm and passion, in which there may be moments of happiness, but for the most part, pursuit can be tiring, frustrating and disappointing. Happiness based on brief experiences of heightened stimulation cannot sustain itself day after day, month after month, year after year. Millions of people in the United States of America experience exhaustion and illness, as a result of this never ending pursuit for something that cannot be attained by pursuit. Moreover, even if happiness should be attained, the guiding principle is pursuit so any current happiness would soon be disregarded in favor of the pursuit, because the pursuit is what it is all about.
What is pursuit? The original Anglo-French word, from about the 14th century, ‘persuete,’ translates as persecution, ie, to go after, to seek, to get ’em, to persecute, to prosecute, to pursue. It’s aggressive. Because in today’s world happiness is often associated with the aggressive acquisition of material possessions, relationships, relative knowledge, control and power, and because of our common tendency to view our own status in comparison to that of others, there is a mad, feverish effort to pursue happiness, not for it’s own value, but to feel ‘on top of the world’ compared to others; and yet, despite the maddening pursuit, there is really little attainment of happiness, little evidence of substantial well-being and contentment.
Well-being and contentment do not subtract from dynamism, productivity, achievement, and innovation. Human beings are very highly animated, extra-ordinarily active, to the point of being over active. Well-being and contentment support dynamism by making it less stressful, less pressured, and more fun. Don’t confuse lack of ambition as equivalent to well-being and contentment. At the same time, don’t confuse lack of ambition with what is typically considered passiveness. Passiveness can be very comfortable, and appropriate. It is open, receptive, responsive and fluid. It allows for options and adaptations, the capacity for which is an ingredient in happiness. Passiveness is like a wild animal at rest, in repose, and, yet, at the same time, acutely alert and aware of it’s environment. This state of restful alertness is a component of baseline happiness. As it stands today, in the pursuit of happiness model, there appears fixed goal posts as to what constitutes happiness. The pursuit of happiness has become a feverish compulsion of assertively making it happen, of getting there. The ability to simply passively receive happiness, to let it happen, to be in it, without the effort of pursuit is foreign, and needs to become familiar ‘…life, liberty and the reception of happiness.’
So, as a national ethos, the pursuit of happiness, doesn’t work too well; the reception of happiness might work quite well. We hold these truths to be self evident, that all peoples are inherently endowed by their existence with certain fundamental inalienable rights including life, liberty and the reception of happiness. The means and methods of reception are different than those of pursuit. How does one go about receiving happiness? Learn to relax, be calm, be passive, be receptive; be like a wild animal, restfully alert. If you’d like to explore further, visit the blog post The Advaita Approach to Mental Health.