Anyone who’s familiar with the United States Declaration of Independence is probably familiar with the following passage: All men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.
(Let’s just leave the part about being “created equal” alone for the moment – because we all know that’s a load of bollocks, right? We may have been created equal, but America has never been a country that has treated people of different genders, races, ethnicities and faith-backgrounds equally.)
Today, I want to to talk about happiness!
Or more specifically, the phrase: “the pursuit of happiness.” And no, I’m not talking about the Will Smith movie. (But it’s a good movie and you should see it if you haven’t.)
Consider for a moment which of these two sentences is more powerful:
“You have the right to pursue happiness.”
“You have the right to happiness.”
I’ve only changed one word between the two sentences, but the second sentence feels like permission – permission to inhabit happiness, to feel joy without restraint. And if you have the right to happiness, well, doesn’t that mean no one else has the right to take it away from you? Try saying it to yourself in the mirror, “happiness is my right.” Can you feel the power of those words? How empowering they are? You have the right to step out of your door and feel happy today. And every day.
But that’s not what the constitution says exactly, is it? Why does “you have the right to pursue happiness” feel so…icky? Well, this sentence puts the onus all on us. You must earn happiness. You must work for it. You don’t have the right to the happiness outright, but you have the right to try to get it. We’ve all heard the phrase, “pull up your bootstraps,” at one time in our lives. Meaning, pull yourself out of your own difficult situations – because it’s not that society is geared towards the success of some people and the failure of others (har har) – it’s that you just aren’t trying hard enough. You’re lazy. You’re flawed. You haven’t earned it.
Maybe the best place to start is by unpacking the word “pursue”. Pursue derives from the latin root “prosequi”, which means to follow, accompany, follow after or follow up”. Originally, the word was employed to mean “to pursue with hostile intent”, the way a lion might pursue a zebra across the plain. (source) . (Or the way I pursue a cup of coffee first thing in the morning.) But in the context of modern day, to pursue simply means to work to achieve something. Now, hey, that doesn’t sound so bad!
You can pursue a college degree. You can pursue a career. You can pursue a skill or trade. You can pursue a sport. You can pursue a lot of things and there’s nothing wrong with that, is there? There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting more and working to achieve it. I mean, that’s sort of the American dream, isn’t it?
Story time. Once upon a time, I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing. Since that time, I’ve gotten a TEFL/TEOFL certification and I’ve done a year of substitute teaching in the States and two years of teaching in Japan and South Korea. I’ll soon be returning to America to look for work, but America is telling me I’m unqualified to teach. But, I’m…I mean…I’m fairly sure that what I’ve been doing for the past two years is..teaching? I mean a couple of kids came in every morning and sat at desks and addressed me as “Leigh Sensei” or “Seonsaeng” or “Leigh Teacher”. Maybe these titles just don’t translate into English?
In America, I have the right to take out more loans, get another degree and spend more money to “earn” the skills I’ve been using for the past two years. I’m happy teaching, but to be happy, I have to spend an additional 1-2 years learning in a classroom and go into more debt, to become what I already was? If you’re scratching your head, you might be starting to get it.
I think we can agree that pursuit in itself isn’t a bad thing. In my own life, I’ve pursued sports, artistic endeavors and academic endeavors and I’ve gained invaluable skills and knowledge as a result. But what does it mean when pursuit becomes the pursuit? To be American is to be constantly chasing the next thing – a promotion at your job, a new job, a degree, an advanced degree, a house, a bigger house, a car, a newer car, an award, a ribbon, a new gym body, a spouse, a new spouse…
How many times have you said to yourself: “When I lose ten pounds I’ll be happy.” “When I have a significant other I’ll be happy.” “When I have a new job I’ll be happy.” “When I buy a house I’ll be happy?” And maybe you will be happy and maybe you won’t, but by saying “when”, you’re putting off your happiness for some unspecified later date. So I’m saying:
Why not today?
Forget the five-year plan and the ten-year plan for a second, the career trajectory, the spouse and kids in the suburbs. Forget the Range Rover in the driveway and the dog with its nose pressed to the glass waiting for you to come home. It’s okay to have dreams. It’s okay to pursue. But don’t put off happiness. Happiness is not some finish-line you’re running towards and never reaching. It’s your right. Right now. Right here. Right in this moment.
Inhabit that moment. Inhabit that happiness. Stop looking forward to where you’re going. Look down, look around, feel the wind on your face, hear the birds in the trees, stop to move a caterpillar out of a busy road (hi Jason!).
Picture this, you’re standing in a train station waiting for the Happiness train to arrive, but it keeps getting delayed and all the passengers around you are getting disgruntled, including you. Your luggage is heavy. You feel like you’ve been in that particular station forever. You’re hungry, but none of the restaurants here look good.
Photo Credit: Malbork on Flickr.
Now, pick a train – it doesn’t matter which one – and get on it. This is your time. This is your moment. You’re letting happiness pass you by waiting for that one specific Happiness train you think will take you there, when you could have had window seat all along. Stow your bags. Get a cup of tea or coffee. Look at the country side. Breathe deep.
How do you feel?