In fact, I’m surrendering my “inalienable right” to pursue happiness.
For all his supposed enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson really screwed us over with this one.
He probably was chasing Sally, his slave and lover, across the gardens at Monticello that day, got all hot and giddy, ran back to his desk, and deleted the word “property” — in the original formula of “life, liberty and property” of the Declaration of Independence — replacing it with “the pursuit of happiness”.
I imagine that in his fevered state of mind, he also ignored the pre-revolutionary aspiration for public happiness, opting instead for the self-centered, private kind.
I don’t consider it a stretch to link Jefferson’s ambiguous Pied Piper dictum to stock market crashes (everyone has a right to be rich), the housing crisis of 2008 (everyone should own a home whether they can afford it or not), and to the soaring costs of higher education and looming student loan debacle (everyone should go to college).
Birds fly because they have wings, not because they have a right to fly. There are no such things as “rights” in biology, wrote Yuval Harari in ‘Sapiens’. “There are only organs, abilities, and characteristics.”
I can no more fly, than play in the NBA (I’m 5’6” and can’t pivot or run fast enough). However, I can, and on occasion do write a clear sentence, believe it or not.
“Born equal” is another phrase in the Declaration of Independence that should be abolished for its tyrannical creation of false hopes and shattered dreams. I can only imagine how much innate talent has been wasted by people pursuing someone else’s dream under the misguided notion that they could be anything they wanted. I should know, having wasted almost forty years doing exactly that.
But that’s not the only reason I am giving up on happiness.
I’m also doing so because it’s an illusion. Or, as Howard Mumford Jones said: it is “the ghastly privilege of pursuing a phantom and embracing a delusion.”
Try to define happiness and you’ll soon be pressed to find more meaningful words, like contentment, joy, serenity, delight, rapture, pleasure, relationship, love…
I’m also done with it because it does not allow room for melancholy and suffering. The key to the relationship between opposites (light/darkness, happiness/sadness, male/female) — between yang and yin in Taoist philosophy — is mutual arising or inseparability. I can only know I am happy by contrast to sadness, not in its absence.
The characteristic American expectation of positive emotions and life experiences makes feelings of sadness and despair more pathological than elsewhere. In her paper ‘From Good Cheer to Drive-By Smiling’, Christina Kotchemdova says that since cheerfulness and depression are bound by opposition, the more one is classified as normal, the more negative the other will appear. And when a culture labels normal sadness or depression as “abnormal,” those who experience these emotions become ashamed and alienated from themselves, thinking that the problem must be them.
Before antidepressants became mainstream, drugs that treated various symptoms of depression were depicted as “tonics which could ease people through the ups and downs of normal, everyday existence,” write Jeffrey Lacasse, a Florida State University professor specializing in psychiatric medications, and Jonathan Leo, a professor of anatomy at Lincoln Memorial University, in a 2007 paper on the history of the chemical imbalance theory.
In our anxious and misguided pursuit of happiness, it is no surprise that antidepressant use in the U.S. has soared by 65% in the past 15 years, or that this country produces and consumes 90% of the world’s Ritalin to treat attention deficit, or that Doctors write nearly 50 million prescriptions for Xanax or alprazolam (the cheap, generic equivalent) every year to “treat” anxiety.
And yet, depression, stress, and anxiety are at an all-time high.
In his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick asks us to imagine a machine that could give us whatever desirable or pleasurable experiences we could want. In this thought experiment psychologists stimulate a person’s brain to induce pleasurable experiences that the subject could not distinguish from those he would have apart from the machine. Nozick then asks, if given the choice, would we prefer the machine to real life?
Melancholy links my pain to beauty and wisdom. My suffering connects me to the suffering of all life. A day without grief, warned Robert Bly, is a day without awareness or compassion.
Instead of happiness, I choose joy because I prefer journeys. Happiness smacks me as arrival, leaving nothing to look forward to. “Happiness relaxes one,” wrote Rollo May in Freedom and Destiny. “Joy is new possibilities; it points toward the future. Joy is living on the razor’s edge; happiness promises satisfaction of one’s present state, a fulfillment of old longings. Joy is the thrill of new continents to explore. Happiness is the absence of discord; joy is the welcoming of discord as the basis of higher harmonies. Happiness is finding a system of rules which solves our problems; joy is taking the risk that is necessary to break new frontiers.
I’m breaking new frontiers by trading-up happiness for eudaimonia: calmly striving towards the development and excellence of my innate abilities, my particular daimon.
In Ancient Greek, daimon is the tutelary god or attendant spirit allotted to each one of us at birth, determining our character and governing our future. Romans called it genie, Arabs jinn, Mayans nahual. Eudaimonism is the ethical doctrine that each one of us is obliged to know and live in truth to our daimon, thereby progressively actualizing an excellence that is ours, innately and potentially.
In other words, I am choosing myself.
Actually, I am remembering myself, looking back at my life before I became the receptor of culture; of all the prescribed “do’s and don’ts” which filled my childhood bucket. As I forget those and begin to order my time based on the hierarchy of my own values, I am also remembering what used to fill me with delight as a young boy, remembering my inclinations and aversions, reliving the moments in which I was doing something that made me lose track of time. It is in those moments and in those experiences that I have discovered my daimon.
I am now living the life which was mine from the start but from which I strayed in pursuit of happiness, which I thought — or was told — was to be found in status and riches. Motivated by ambition, avarice, and envy, I lived in “bad faith” as the existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said, or dysdaimonic, as Aristotle called anyone living at variance to themselves; in contradiction between their desires and innate inclinations.
In short, I now write, joyfully, instead of playing basketball.
Finally, I chose eudaimonia over simple happiness or hedonic pleasure, because it is better for my health.
In 2013, a team of genomics researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, recruited 84 volunteers for an experiment that examined genes associated with health while simultaneously probing happiness in a way that would tease apart hedonic and eudaimonic well-being.
At the genetic level the two forms of happiness could hardly be more different. In volunteers who scored strongly for hedonic well-being and weakly for eudaimonic well-being, inflammation-causing genes were 20% more active than average, and genes associated with the production of virus-attacking antibodies, 20% less active. In contrast, in those who were the other way around, genes associated with the production of interferons (proteins that support communication during immune-system responses) were 10% more active and antibody genes 30% more active (Source: The Economist, The Right Kind of Happy).
Thomas Jefferson was wise to delete “property” from the original version of the Declaration of Independence, but should have dug deeper into the rich soil of his classic education, so that, rather than sending America on a wild goose chase for happiness, he would have pointed us in the direction of eudaimonia, or at the very least, to the Greek notion of ataraxia, defined by the philosopher Epicurus as a state where we abstain from unnecessary desires and achieve an inner tranquility by being content with simple things.