“Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” seems pretty straightforward as far as founding documents and stump speeches go. And, in a country where little can be agreed upon, this is a famous statement that anyone can nod along to. However, there are some particular problems with this phrase, and not just the hypocrisy of land-owning white men declaring these things as “unalienable rights” even while maintaining chattel slavery and a firm patriarchy. The one I want to parse out is “the pursuit of happiness,” which, while appearing to be the most obvious and benign of the three rights, may be as revealing of the American imagination as either of the other two. What I mean is, while life and liberty as rights was a newer concept in the world (The Declaration of Independence would heavily influence France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen 13 years later), the pursuit of happiness has also not been something guaranteed, or even available, to the average citizen. But, in 1776, Thomas Jefferson decided to put life and liberty right next to the pursuit of things and activities that make people experience happiness.
In America today, the right to life is, for the most part, taken for granted (although this time the hypocrisy suggests that life is a right only for born persons). We assume that
all most people have the right to life. Liberty is the one that gets the most controversy, as doomsayers like Ted Cruz claim that religious Christian liberty is under assault and issues of gender and sexuality become some of the most important new discussions in society. The Libertarian movement suggests that liberty is as important as it is elusive.
But enough about those things. It’s the pursuit of happiness which has come to be America’s real sacred cow. The quality of our life and liberty have come to be predicated on how happy we are. Things and activities that generate happiness have become the very things for which Americans aim, and the rewards that are promised for hours and hours of work.
And this is fine – now that humans don’t have to fend off wild animals and we have medicine to keep us around for more than fifty years, it’s great to fill up spare time with leisure, recreation, and the things from which we derive happiness. But there’s a problem, and this is the thesis to which this overwrought introduction has built:
Happiness is cheap. And the exaltation of this cheap happiness is a road to misery that bypasses fulfillment. I hope to show that, while not having the same ring to it, the pursuit of fulfillment is the thing for which we should aim instead.
I can’t say for sure what Jeffy had in mind when he penned the Declaration – maybe he really envisioned all that I’m about to say. And I can’t really say exactly what my fellow Americans have in mind when they think of the pursuit of happiness. But what I see being sold to us, what I see being pursued, what I see being exalted and protected, is happiness that comes from fun, from thrills, from pleasure, from smiles and sunshine and puppies and rainbows. I don’t mean to be sardonic – I really think that happiness, for so many people, amounts to good food, good drink, good sex, good laughs, and good fun. And when we’re not doing one of those things, it is expected that we should keep a good mood. We should just be happy. If we’re not smiling that must mean something is wrong. And Lady Liberty forbid something should be wrong. The happiness I’m talking about isn’t just another word for materialism, but it’s the mindset that being in a happy state of mind is what makes up our quality of life, our measure of success, and the definition of our purpose.
This isn’t right. This is a distraction. We have greater aims in life than the nice feeling we get from being happy. Happiness is great – I like being happy – but devoting our lives to gaining as much happiness as we can is doomed for failure. C.S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” I think we might say, for the purposes of this essay, “Aim at fulfillment and you will get happiness thrown in. Aim at happiness and you get neither.”
The song “Injoy,” from Beleaf’s depression-riddled album Red Pills + Black Sugar, presents this tension as Beleaf and his guests rap about the troubles of life but also the pressure they feel to appear happy. Beleaf laments that his “smile is counterfeit” and wishes that he could appear happy while also growing as a person. It’s a pretty good song, but its best moment is the very end, in which Beleaf says, “Yeah I’m supposed to fake it till I make it huh/Yeah I’m supposed to be happy, happy/But this life keeps getting worse/But I just keep smiling and pretend that I’m happy, happy.” It’s unsettling, and it should be. The song is inspired by the second verse of the Book of James, in which Jesus’ brother implores his audience to “Count it all joy when you meet various trials.” What Beleaf reveals in this disconcerting end to an anguished song is that to count it all joy does not mean “don’t worry, be happy.” He is struggling with the Christian belief that Christ is ultimate joy, even while experiencing human suffering.
Despite the call for joy, I don’t think there’s much case to be made that the Bible directs Christians to be “happy” all the time. Was Jesus happy when he wept for Lazarus? Do all of the Psalms end with cheerful assurance of God’s help? On the contrary, the Bible is full of sorrow and even anger (Ephesians 4:26, Jesus clearing the temple, etc). And there’s a very good reason for that – it’s through trials that we grow. Growth doesn’t happen in times of ease and comfort – rather, it happens when the trials are very real. C.H. Spurgeon, who struggled with depression throughout his life despite his spiritual zeal, said that “They who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls.” Some Christians like to say the world will know them by their love, or by their hope, and neither of those are the same thing as happiness.
I generally approach this sort of topic with a Christian and American framework, but I don’t mean to confine it to that lens, even if Christianity is important for my angle on this in particular. The Tao Te Ching, a spiritual text for which I have great admiration, is also lowkey on happiness. Peace, wisdom, balance, harmony, and humility are some of the things of much greater importance to Lao Tzu and other followers of the Tao.
But this issue can’t be confined to spiritual and religious persons either – I think this plays out for just about any spiritual worldview.
Where else to look first but the song “Pursuit of Happiness,” by Kid Cudi, one of the great secular philosophers of our time? In all seriousness, I don’t care if Cudi makes terrible albums for the rest of his life – Man on the Moon: The End of Day is enough to make him a genius forever. The thirteenth song on that album, “Pursuit of Happiness,” has become an anthem for the party lifestyle, but the song isn’t about celebrating drugs, alcohol, and the other things associated with wealth and fame. Rather, the message is that, no matter how much he pursues happiness through the party lifestyle, he’s left unsatisfied: “I’m on the pursuit of happiness and I know/Everything that shine ain’t always gonna be gold/Hey, I’ll be fine once I get it, I’ll be good.” He knows that there is something higher beyond getting high that will satisfy, but has yet to find it. This is one of the messages of his masterpiece album, summed up in the album’s final poem by fellow rapper Common: “The end is never the end. A new challenge awaits/A test no man could be prepared for/A new hell he must conquer and destroy/A new level of growth he must confront himself/The machine in the ghost within/This is the journey of the man on the moon.”
Of course, you might reject Cudi as an outlier with a troubled psyche and a drug problem, but this sort of pained expression is hardly unique to Cudi. It begins with slave songs and black spirituals, which created the blues, which would become the taproot genre for jazz, rock ‘n roll, R&B, Gospel, and hip-hop. In other words, the pain of slaves eventually evolved into almost all of the most popular genres of American music. It also appears in the written poetics of Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and others. This music, this deeply affecting music, does not spring from sunshine and rainbows, but rather comes from the stirring of pained souls longing for something else.
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to America in the early 1930’s, he was affected by the mistreatment of black Americans, by the beauty of black spirituals, and by the sound preaching happening in black churches. His time in America moved his theology to theologia crucis, in which the Gospel is hidden and found in suffering. This was a change from his theologia gloriae, which placed God in the presence of a people’s success and well-being, a theology that would have exalted the success of the Third Reich and turned a blind eye to the Jewish people. Finding the Gospel among the oppressed in America helped move Bonhoeffer away from supporting the German government to become a conspirator plotting to overthrow Hitler to save oppressed people from his murderous policies. (ht Reggie Williams, PhD).
I’m not saying that the black experience was bereft of happiness, or that good music and good religion can only come out of prolonged suffering, but these examples illustrate something lasting and something gratifying that exists even when happiness proves difficult to pursue. These examples hint at deeper longings that are more crucial to our well-being than fits of happiness.
This calls to my mind J.R.R. Tolkien’s statement about spiritual longing: “We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile.” This truism shapes his fiction, and we can see some of the ways in which a longing for something better supersedes our quest for happiness. In Middle-Earth, the hobbits are not materialistic happiness-seekers because they spend their time eating, drinking, and smoking. Hobbits do those things, but that’s because that’s what hobbits do – they’re bucolic beings with a love of growing things, and they are in a state of fulfillment when they are growing plants, eating plants, and, of course, smoking plants. Not because they’re bent on happy feelings, but because they are earthy beings with a love for hearth and home. Likewise, the elves are not somber because they can’t find fun things to do – they’re somber because their time is fading away as connections to the natural world become weaker. They aren’t sad because they don’t have meadows to play yard games in – they’re pained because their natural way of life is fading from the world. In short, the joy found in Tolkien’s world is not based in the pursuit of happiness, but in the glimpses of Eden that drive characters to do what is right – to defend their friends, to fight evil, to take care of the earth.
It is clear that many people – writers, ministers, artists, philosophers – have found their greatest meaning not in happiness, but in fulfillment. Why? Maybe it’s because happiness is fleeting but fulfillment endures.
What can pursuing happiness guarantee other than the insatiable need to pursue more happiness? Food, drink, cars, houses, sex, sports, and things like these brings happiness, but do not secure our position against the storms of life. Trials will come. And we need those trials. But how can we expect to face trials and grow from trials, or how can we even expect to survive trials if we are determined to make happiness our default setting? If we spend our lives running as fast we can away from pain and sadness, what foundation do we have when trouble comes?
I find many of these answers presented by Beautiful Eulogy in their song “Anchor,” which has given me much peace and profound joy, even though it has never made me happy and even though it is not a happy song: “It helps me/To understand that we stand on solid rock not on sinking sand/Through the providence of pain you perfect your plan/Predestined to be tested when the works and the Words of/God cooperate and educate men in the great gift of Grace/And Faith. And even though its obvious when my outlook’s/Ominous you’ve bound my heart and my conscience and gave me a constant calmness.”
Whether you believe in purpose and design, there is a space inside all of us that is reserved for fulfillment, and this space can’t be filled with happiness, no matter how hard we pursue it. As a Christian, I might call this “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). I expect that a non-Christian would have their own answer for purpose and fulfillment, pre-ordained or otherwise – but I should hope that it recognizes the futility in filling life up with happiness generators rather than the things that lay the foundation of fulfillment and thus provide happiness in turn.
Stop chasing happiness. I don’t think you will ultimately find it. Life is tough and people are fickle. What pleases you today may bore you tomorrow. Pursue fulfillment instead. There are deeper, more beautiful, more worthy things to set your attention on than a comfortable, easy, happy life. The most beautiful roses in life come with unhappy thorns.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria