Illustration Source: Bing Images
Text © 2014 By Bob Litton
In his “Declaration of Independence”, that slave-owning spendthrift Thomas Jefferson included among men’s “unalienable Rights…the pursuit of Happiness.”
For longer than I can remember, I have mused quizzically on what it means to pursue happiness and whether it was something that could be caught. And, if it could be caught, for how long might it be retained. Above all, what did happiness feel like? The other two “rights” — Life and Liberty — were certainly easy to mentally grasp, although they could be taken away; but “Happiness” appeared a bit diaphanous to me. “Life” and “Liberty” are physical qualities and easily distinguished from their singular opposites. Not so “Happiness”, which is a feeling and thus an internal, invisible sensation (I suppose) with several, maybe even many, contradistinctive feelings, such as sadness, boredom, indifference, yearning, nervousness, anxiety, etc.
Of course, many fairy tales were read to me during childhood that often ended with the phrase “…lived happily ever after”. That was probably the first cliché I learned. However, it did not take many years of maturation to discover that one’s path through life, even starting with an optimistic wedding, was usually littered with the rocks and thorns of unhappy experiences.
Still, I wondered what happiness is and could I recall ever having felt it. If ever there was an adjective that is overworked, it is “happy”: I’m so happy you could come to the party! Happy New Year! I’m sure you’ll be happy in your new home! Tell your friends I am happy their daughter survived that plane crash! (in which everyone else was killed). I can summon vignettes in my brain, particularly from my childhood, that shimmer with fun and pleasant surprises and even jollity, but all those experiences were relatively ephemeral, certainly not lasting as long as an hour or two, much less “forever after”.
If you had asked me twenty-five years ago if I placed any faith in happiness, i.e., saw it as a real state of being, I would have mimicked Ebenezer Scrooge and said, “Bah, humbug!” However, one beautiful, cool autumn day in the early 1990’s, while I was participating in Alcoholics Anonymous and working for one of its members (a remodeling contractor), I was sent on an errand to a client’s parking lot near Richardson, Texas, where my project was to paint some concrete posts a bright yellow. It was quite breezy that day, so I had a small problem dodging the paint drips as they were blown off my brush. But, actually, it was a very pleasant assignment: I was working alone, outside, and doing something physical yet not heavily so. Within a couple of hours I was through and headed back to the construction company office. During the drive, while thinking of nothing apparently memorable, I felt a sudden sense of joy, a feeling stronger than any of that sort I had ever felt before. I uttered out loud, “I feel happy!”
Now, looking back on that experience, and trying to be consistent with what I have written above, I think that “happy” was not the correct term to describe my feeling. No, I think I should have said, “I feel joyful!” Isn’t that a strange contrast: “happiness” and “joy”? The word “happiness” implies extendedness, something that can remain continuous for at least a “year” and even perhaps “forever after”. “Joy”, on the other hand, does not bear such a burden; it nearly always relates to a few moments, yet those moments are brighter and more exciting than any happy period, regardless of the latter’s length.
Yes, what I felt was joy, but that experience made me wonder that, if joy could be so palpably real, perhaps the same might be said for happiness. From that day, I have never gainsaid anyone who claimed they were happy, but I have also ducked whenever they expressed their view that I myself should be happy. There are too many shocks during the day and too much harm done by so many people in the world, for me to be “happy” any extended period — not even for a full day. I suppose, however, that I am contented with some elements through my lifetime: that I was able to develop my talents as much as I have; that, as of yet, I have not experienced any life-threatening diseases (unless that viral encephalitis attack a few years ago is classifiable as such); that I have attracted several faithful and helpful friends, as well as met many interesting characters; that I have contributed a few times to the betterment of the communities in which I dwelt; and that I have enjoyed so many works of literature, music and art. More could be added to the list, but I don’t want to make my readers’ eyes glaze over.
I still wonder about ol’ Jefferson’s wording. I think he got that phrase “pursuit of happiness” from John Locke and did not really analyze it much. I believe what he intended to say was “pursuit of property”.