Sunday, July 4, 2010

And the Pursuit of Happiness

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.

American Declaration of Independence
It's All About Happiness
Yesterday, Iris and I celebrated our wedding anniversary feeling incredibly lucky/blessed to have found one another, grateful to be together and happy. The weekend that we got married, the whole country threw a big celebration with fireworks, concerts and barbecues. I imagine, the country will be doing the same thing today.

As Iris and I drove home from dinner last night, I commented to her, "America is a really great idea. We might not always do it very well, but the whole concept is quite amazing to me."

This morning I was thinking about the famous line from the American Declaration of Independence that calls out three self-evident, inalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It occurred to me that it all comes down simply to the pursuit of happiness. The other rights are there because they're prerequisites to that pursuit. In fact, if one could better pursue happiness without liberty or freedom, then liberty or freedom would not be required.

In his keynote speech to the First Global Forum on Human Development (1999), Nobel-laureate Amartya Sen says:
"For example, diminution of freedoms are bad, not because freedom is itself important, but precisely because--indeed only because--loss of freedom ultimately causes loss of happiness and misery."
In fact, one could could go so far as to say that the effectiveness of a government can be measured by the happiness of the governed. Eighteenth century philosopher Jeremy Bentham said that the best society is one where its citizens are happiest and that the best public policy is that which produces the greatest happiness.

I believe that life and liberty are more than sufficient for one to pursue (and obtain) happiness and although I imagine one could be happy without them (imprisoned and under threat of death), I'm quite grateful for life and liberty. I also believe that a government can guarantee the pursuit of happiness, but can't guarantee happiness. In many ways, the entire American experiment is about happiness. All the laws and systems that have been put into place are there to guarantee happiness for one and all.

What is Happiness?
Historically (based more on assertion than scientific evidence), economists have equated changes in happiness with changes in purchasing power. For many years, people in Western societies have had the freedom to pursue (and obtain) greater income and wealth. And yet, as Western societies have become richer, their people have not become happier.

More recently, economist have begun to look for new, evidenced-based metrics of happiness using learning garnered from psychology, sociology, brain science and philosophy. Both the United Nations Development Program and the World Bank have initiatives in defining metrics of happiness. We're moving from Gross National Product (GNP) and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Simply put, to be happy is to feel good, to have a general sense of well being. However, there are many dimensions to feeling good. Feeling safe or the absence fear and anxiety is a dimension of feeling good. Feeling physically healthy, rested and strong is another. Feeling satisfied and content is another. Feeling confident and focused is another. So, while feeling good is ultimately what being happy is about, it might be overly simplistic. Happiness is a complex matrix of sensations and emotions that ultimately allow you to answer the question: how are you feeling?

The Happiness/Unhappiness Cycle
One might argue that everything we do, even our unhappiness, is done in an effort to become happier. Sometimes we have to go through many levels of indirection to get from current activity to core motivation, but the core is always: to become happier.

We spend hours per day commuting to jobs that we're less than satisfied with in order to make money to support our families, not because we have to (although we might say so), but because we want our families to be happy (satisfied, free to pursue what they want, feeling safe and protected) and that makes us happy.

We condemn ourselves for being overweight to motivate ourselves to lose weight because we believe that being thin will make us happy.

For many of us, unhappiness (dissatisfaction, judgment, fear) is necessary to achieving happiness. However, if our goal is ultimately to be happy, then why not start there? It's because we believe that, were we happy in our current situation, we'd never change it. So, we get unhappy with our current situation in order to motivate ourselves to move to a new situation where we can be happy.

The thing is that we could be happy all along.

Pursuing Happiness
Going way back to 1722, in his book, The Religion of Nature Delineated, William Wollaston describes the "truest definition" of "natural religion" as being:
"The pursuit of happiness by the practice of reason and truth."
For many of us who contribute to and read this blog, this statement resonates. Happiness is not found in money, nor in the physical stuff that fills our lives, nor in relationships, nor in food, drink, sleep or sex. Although getting a raise or buying a boat or meeting with friends or eating a great meal can make us feel good, none of these leads to lasting, significant changes in our happiness. Although we can be glad for safety, freedom, and other factors that mitigate against unhappiness, happiness is not found in those factors.

A sustainable, significant change in happiness is something that we come to through reason. It may be organized and structured left-brained reasoning, it may be free-flowing, ontological right-brained reasoning, but in the end, big changes happiness that last are independent of all factors save our ability to reason.

It's through our processing of perceptions that we turn unhappy situations into happy situations. Although we might generally include feeling rested and strong as components of feeling good, there are times when we return home after a day of rigorous activity feeling completely spent and it feels great! There are often situations where we are anything but safe, and yet we don't experience fear or anxiety. In fact, we can be completely happy with our current situation (being overweight, being underpaid, being away from family and friends) and still want to and actively work to change it.

It's our capacity reason our way through perceptions and beliefs that leads to happiness, or not.

We'll talk more about reasoning our way to happiness in the days to come. For now, I'm feeling quite grateful to have been granted: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Happy Independence Day!

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