The notion that anyone was entitled to the pursuit of happiness came about recently in historical terms. Before that, the obligations owed to family, society, and the divine or honored ancestors decidedly superseded all personal goals and desires. But in those times happiness was defined differently too.
Happiness has been proven to be entirely subjective and relative, fickle and frail. The pursuit of happiness may well be a wild goose chase, but for many the chase is the best part.
My husband asked me once why we remember negative experiences so vividly while positive experiences are so fleeting, and I had a theory to offer. Negative experiences need to be avoided and human memory is largely recognition over true retention, thus we need our negative memories to guide us in the future. With positive experiences, we love them, but they are more dynamic, more variable and can be something we have not yet experienced. Rather than try to re-create a narrow set of criteria to be happy, we need to cultivate the sensation of being happy and remember to seek that sensation to achieve the broadest range of happiness possible.
Approaching the pursuit of happiness by seeking the sensation it evokes allows us to let go of sources that no longer provide happiness and seek previously unknown sources of happiness. It allows us to realize that happiness is a conglomerate of what we build, what we seek, how we see it and how we choose to assign value to what we see, it has as much to do with our reactions to a stimulus as the stimulus itself. It’s why we can be pleased with a challenge, and willingly work or suffer to overcome it: because the reward is a pleasure we are eager to earn.
Negative experiences are almost one-dimentional dangers or disruptions; they do not have the wonderfully complex connections that happiness has to benefits like need fulfillment, emotional closeness, achievement, pleasure and more. Creating or re-creating positive experiences is harder that seeking them out. Avoiding negative experiences is easier than building happiness – a lasting set of positive experiences.
The happiest people are not those who have achieved or received the most. They are not the ones who run from negative or toward positive either. They are the ones who recognize their own agency in happiness. In what it means to be happy. That it has everything to do modifying their expectations, viewing situations holistically, overlooking minor issues and having the flexibility to approach what is happening rather than what they planned.
The heart of happiness lies in our definition of it, and how we assign value to experiences. That’s why pursuit of happiness is a misnomer – it’s not out there to find. It’s inside, just like all the cliches and sayings tell us.
I started this post with a different agenda, and have found myself far from it. So I’ll share that my original sentiment was that the pursuit of happiness has become an obligation with a focus on individual pleasure as the interpretation of happiness. I take issue with that definition and the push to achieve it at the expense of all else. That’s not genuine happiness, it’s justifying selfishness. It’s ok to be selfish sometimes, and enjoy pleasure as well. But those are not the same as true happiness, and the proof is in the fact that people who define happiness that way are easily dissatisfied and continue a fruitless search for external validation and pleasing themselves which is never as satisfying as they wish it was.
Real happiness is everything from feeling secure, to overcoming challenges and the joy of discovery. It’s doing the right thing and pride in a job well done. It’s sacrifice for a worthy cause, learning new things and helping others. Defining happiness as only personal pleasure is limited, shallow, slightly immature. Bringing ourselves to create happiness amidst struggle is infinitely more meaningful than finding momentary pleasure.