The Problem With Our 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.” From the United States’ Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. So began our country’s separation from England and our perpetual battle to further define, secure, and defend those unalienable rights. Our Founders worked hard to give us specific enough buckets to frame the intent behind the laws that would be written following the Declaration, while allowing us the latitude to refine the necessary particularities. We’ve pressed the limits on each of them.

I’ll leave life and liberty for another day. Today, I’d like to talk about happiness. The pursuit of happiness as envisioned at the founding of the United States was one centered on opportunity and flourishing. Our collective vision centered on taking our freedom and chasing our dream for a better life – however that might defined for each of us as individuals. This new country would be a land of opportunity in our ultimate test of self-government.

What is happiness? Merriam-Webster offers a number of distinct definitions:

1 favored by luck or fortune FORTUNATE

— a happy coincidence

2 notably fitting, effective, or well adapted FELICITOUS

–a happy choice

3 a enjoying or characterized by well-being and contentment

— is the happiest person I know

— a happy childhood

b expressing, reflecting, or suggestive of happiness

— a happy ending


— I’m happy to meet you

d having or marked by an atmosphere of good fellowship FRIENDLY

— a happy office

For the most part, we would associate happiness with the feeling of being pleased or a sense of contentment. After all, who doesn’t want to enjoy their life? This aspect of happy moves us toward the pleasure side of experience, which may still be a hopeful element of the notion of flourishing, but ultimately falls short of our more nuanced and complex existence. Happy at the level of being “pleased” is far too simplistic to capture the essence of intent in our Declaration, right?

Looking around, it seems that somewhere along the way, we decided to take it literally. Not only should we pursue it, but we deserve it. It is owed to us. After all, it’s an unalienable right, right? Somewhere along the way, we began to believe that if we aren’t feeling happy, something is wrong. This attachment to the feel-good, emotional aspect of happiness has become incredibly damaging.

What happens when we expect something and we don’t get it? Disappointment. High incidences of addiction, anxiety, and depression point to a general state of melancholy, a malaise brought-on by unhappiness. Much of our “mental health” crisis is attached to states of disappointment. Disappointment in my job. Disappointment with my spouse. Disappointment with my health. Disappointment with myself. We’ve grown to expect good feelings and when we’re not feeling good, we’re disappointed…and unhappy.

I recently finished a book called The Road to Character by best-selling author and New York Times columnist David Brooks. The book was published in 2015 and contrasts “resume virtues” with “eulogy virtues” through the example of some of history’s great thinkers and inspirational leaders including names like worker’s rights activist, Frances Perkins, social servant, Dorothy Day, General & President, Dwight Eisenhower, civil rights activist, A. Philip Randolph, and St. Augustine. His point: we live in the culture of the Big Me and it’s not bringing us happiness.

There is a lot to unpack in Brooks’ book and I may revisit more of it in future posts. He kindly summarizes wisdom distilled from the lives he profiles in what he calls a “Humility Code” of fifteen points toward the end of the book. Here are the first two propositions from his Humility Code:

  1. We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.
  2. Proposition one defines the goal of life.

Brooks’ point is that life is a moral drama, not a hedonistic one. His book is a counter-cultural argument against the Big Me, our hyper-obsessed world of self, and his conclusion that my life is ultimately not about me.

In The Strangest Way, Bishop Robert Barron recounts a story in the life of Thomas Merton, just after his conversion to Catholicism. Walking down a street in New York City, Merton’s friend asked him: “Tom, what do you want to be?” Merton replied, “I don’t know, I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.” The friend corrected Merton saying, “What you should say is that you want to be a saint.”

The Merton story always struck me as obvious: of course, Thomas Merton was called to a life of monastic devotion – he should obviously aim to be a Saint. But that’s not my life. My life is in the real world. My life has bills, deadlines, tuition, and activities. My life is about me and my own pursuit of happiness, right?

What is a saint? In short, a saint is someone who is pursuing holiness as the goal of his or her life. A saint is someone working to shift herself from the center of her own life and focus on something greater than herself. A saint is someone who is willing to lay down his life for that greater good. Perhaps a saint is someone focused on eulogy virtues rather than just resume virtues. Perhaps we’re all called to such sainthood.

Uncomfortable with the term holiness? What if we called it goodness? Not feel-goodness, but goodness in the sense of turning the Big Me into a smaller me in service of things beyond myself or greater than my own desires?

Our stuff is not making us happier. Our pursuit of more is not adding to the joy of existence. Our arrival at the pinnacle of success is no guarantee of fulfillment, satisfaction, or happiness. No matter what we achieve, how much pleasure we have, or how much stuff we put in our storage units, we are still finding ourselves disappointed. Our pursuit of such happiness is not working out how we thought it would.

What would happen if we lived for holiness? What would happen if goodness was our first aim? I’m not suggesting we all need to put on a collar or a habit, sell-off all worldly possessions, or pursue full time missionary work. We are not all called to such vocations. But what would happen if we made holiness the priority in our life as it is? What if I focused less on myself and more on others? What if I gave more than I received? What if I worked to serve rather than to be served? What if I stopped worrying about being happy and focused on making others happy, reducing their suffering, or feeling less alone?

My guess is that as soon as we stop focusing on our own happiness and spend more time on the happiness of those around us, we will find more joy than we ever thought possible. I think that If we spent more time thinking about what we could give rather than getting what we wanted, we would find ourselves “feeling” far more satisfaction and fulfillment. My suspicion is that if we spent less time thinking about ourselves, we would find ourselves far less disappointed.

Billy Joel famously sang that he’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. Perhaps those tears have been tears of joy and we’ve missed the point all along. Maybe real flourishing is living in a way radically different than what we’ve been told we need to be happy.

  • Dave Worland

    Thanks Phil. I always enjoy reading and listening to your weekly posts!

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