The pursuit of happiness

This post has a simple and easily defined aim: today we identify everything that is wrong with the world, and how to fix it. And in honour of the forthcoming US elections, we do so in terms that have an American, almost political flavour.

Now I know you may be thinking that, as ambitions go, this is on the bold side: but hear me out. The great problem of modern society is not inequality, nor debt, nor crime, nor lack of social cohesion; it isn’t TV, nor even Jimmy Savile; it is neither the yoof, nor the tottering ranks of the elderly. It is happiness. Specifically: the pursuit of it, as laid out in the US Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right of mankind.

Declaration of Independence


The phrase ‘pursuit of happiness’ has sunk deep roots in the modern consciousness, to the extent that to challenge it sounds either miserabilist or pointlessly controversial; and yet it is the most bogus of statements and the most absurd of concepts, for one very good reason. Happiness by its very nature cannot be pursued.

Many things do lie within our grasp. We can strive for goodness, decency, a sense of value. We can seek satisfaction, even perhaps contentment. But to chase happiness is to chase a will-o’-the-wisp, an illusion that keeps us always running, never reaching – always, by definition, unhappy, because happiness recedes before us.

Here’s why. All the things I listed above as achievable are associated with actions: with the actual doing of something by some person. This applies most strongly to satisfaction. Give me a task, and I can try to complete it satisfactorily. Should I do so, I can feel satisfied in my work. I saw an objective, I completed it, I feel no distance between what I wanted and what I have got.

As a result – and probably only later, looking back – I may say that I felt happy: an indefinable sense of well-being that emanated from the ether. But I did not do the thing in search of happiness itself, and if I had done the action would have been poisoned by the ambition assigned to it.

Let me give you a concrete example. I need to put up a shelf. To do so I saw a piece of wood. Halfway through my sawing, if someone were to ask me, “Does that make you happy?” I would stop and honestly answer: no. Sawing wood doesn’t make happy. Spiritual awareness might perhaps make me happy; spending time with people I care about it might do it. Those are the things I want to do with my life. Why am I wasting time sawing this stupid piece of wood?

However, if I were asked, “Are you finding that satisfying?” I would say yes: I know how to do it, I am doing what needs to be done. This is satisfactory.

And here is the kicker: the stuff that ‘makes me happy’ is either nebulous or a treat – the cake and icing of life, not the bread and water. It does not link to actions. The things I do on a day-to-day basis cannot lead me to it; cannot ‘make me happy’.

The accumulation of satisfying experiences, on the other hand: that can. By doing tasks of more or less interest to me as well as I am able, I get to the end of a day tired, but satisfied. Afterwards I relax, I give up striving – and now, almost unnoticed, the conditions for happiness have been met, and it steals in around me.

Had I spent the day seeking happiness, I would have given up on all the tedious tasks that could have satisfied me, and mooned around after a pipe-dream. In the evening I would have been gnawed with guilt at the thought of all the things I failed to do that day, and the ways in which my life did not correspond to an unachievable ideal.

This doesn’t just apply to sawing wood, and it doesn’t just apply to individuals: it runs through society, and how we aspire to live in it. We are conditioned to seek happiness, but we don’t know what actions lead to this state. Many people therefore equate happiness with fame or money. This is splendidly ironic: these are two things that by their definition the majority can never enjoy.

So just as happiness itself cannot be sought, but only happens upon us when we seek a different goal, so the common aspirations of people in a free society cannot be achieved. Everyone is forced by the way we have defined our ambitions to find their lives wanting. Our desires are placed forever out of our reach. And so, obliged to seek happiness (this is good on that sense of obligation), we consume product after product, we go through relationship after relationship in search of a ‘soulmate’, we yearn for illusion after illusion – and all the time the only thing that grows is our wintry discontent.

Generally, when people lament the state of the world, I tend to disagree. What we have now is what people in the past would have wanted: our lives progress and improve. But this is one area in which we have lost our way, I think. People in the past had multiple aspirations, and made compromises in pursuit of satisfaction. Most people today have a single unobtainable aspiration, and refuse to compromise at all, in the pursuit of happiness: a pernicious dream that taunts and mocks them for everything they lack.

And in the end it all comes down to that one word: happiness. Jefferson’s alleged source for the Declaration of Independence was John Locke. Now Locke took time to define happiness: he said ‘the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness’. Careful, constant, true and solid: these words qualify the state he describes, and make it something far from the vacuous modern catch-all. Jefferson didn’t have that time, so he used only one out of what are five vital words – and so, I would argue, spun out a myriad unforeseen consequences.

Often people dismiss the choice of the exact word as a mere quibble – ‘a question of semantics’. I disagree: words have power. And if the most powerful country in the world existed to safeguard life, liberty and the pursuit of satisfaction – or fulfilment – or even true and solid happiness – I think the world it dominates would be a different place. A happier one.

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Will le Fleming is a novelist. His debut, Central Reservation, is published by Xelsion and available now. Read more...

On a grey Thursday morning Holly lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, and wished her sister would die. Five hours later her wish came true. Read more...

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The first post explains all - find it here.