“The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” these unalienable rights are clearly stated in our Declaration of Independence. But what does it mean to pursue happiness? And is it a lofty pursuit, after all?
If you can’t tell, I have been devouring Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.
I’d already been a fan of the blog, and a friend highly recommended the book. I’ve been flying through it, and I know why it appeals to me: it’s neatly laid out month by month, following Gretchen’s Happiness resolutions, and it’s a book just as much about knowing one’s self and self-growth than happiness.
But until recently I wasn’t sure why it was also bugging me. And then I stumbled upon a chapter where Rubin recalls a conversation at a cocktail party where someone accuses her of self-indulgence when there’s so much suffering in the world. The person’s implication is not only that we can’t be happy when so many people are suffering, but also that we shouldn’t. Rather than happiness we should focus on loftier things.
And this is where I’d been a little skeptical of Rubin’s so-called Happiness Project myself. I mean, isn’t there more to life than happiness?
But then I was reminded of a particular ex-boyfriend whose save-the-world attitude, which had once inspired me to do many of the things I do today, soured into a guilt-tripping morose cloud and made me feel small at times. I remember telling him about the passion I had for my work at Bread for the World, helping to create a constituency to fight hunger, only to see him snickering at my naivete that I was playing a small part in a greater good, and ultimately guilting me into thinking I’d sold out.
A few years earlier when I’d lived in Anacostia, a downtrodden DC neighborhood, doing community projects for a summer, I’d felt so moved by the needs I saw that I shared my contemplation toward dropping out of school and living there full-time with an older woman who lived across the street.
“Honey, any of us would kill for that opportunity,” she retorted. “Don’t you dare drop out of college. You dropping out of college ain’t gonna do none of us or the world no good. You go back and finish and then you come do your good things. We’ll be here. Just come back someday and say hi.”
When I returned to college my sophomore year I was still shaken up by the reality of the poverty and distess I’d seen that summer. A wise college chaplain suggested that my friend in Anacostia had it right and told me that the letters after my name when I graduated wouldn’t be some badge to carry around and lord over others, but would represent my indebtness to the world.
Perhaps such a statement would have incited a great amount of fear or stress in another student, but for me it was a great source of peace, and even happiness. I felt humbled by the opportunity my parents had worked to provide me a college education, an opportunity that many others don’t have, and I was convinced to see it through, and certainly not to waste it.
I think what I have always feared when it comes to contemplating happiness is not necessarily the fear of indulgence, but self-indulgence that breeds complacency. But even complacency is not a passive thing. It doesn’t just happen. Sure it creeps up on us, but it’s ultimately about finding ourselves in robust, free lives and then making choices to ignore the fact that others don’t live like us. You have to work pretty hard these days to insulate yourself from the needs of the world.
To her credit, Rubin talks throughout the book about how to be happy one must be in an atmosphere of growth. And for me growth occurs through my relationships with God, others, and myself. I’m not saying that for everyone self-knowledge and growth begin and end with God, but I think that any happiness project needs to stretch squarely, emphatically, and broadly beyond oneself. I needed to learn from my neighbors in Anacostia to find my way, from my college chaplain, even from my college ex-boyfriend.
If there’s a myth in that Declaration of Independence it may not so much the pursuit of happiness, but the way we interpret independence to be the very American sense that we are all individuals, islands, fighting our own way in life. It may seem lofty, or very American, to go it on your own, to pull yourself up by your own boot straps, but I think the loftier goal is to recognize just how much we need each other.
In the end, I do tend to think it’s a privilege, not a right to pursue happiness, because I know that what is possible for me today is very much a product of my situation in life, the hard work of my parents, and the belief of others in me. So, I feel happiest when I feel interconnected with others around me, or when I’m working to understand and be better understood by my fellow human beings. I feel happiest when through challenges, God grants me a deeper understanding of God’s love and wisdom and myself. And I feel happiest when humility guides me to learn from others, as well as from myself.