Reflecting on the world this Independence Day, these words feel well connected to the individualist spirit of iceboating and our relentless winter pursuit: on long drives down unknown highways, into small towns with remote lakes and on icy launch ramps, then to pursue the wind, the marks and each other. These pursuits nearly always capture a rich dollop of happiness.
“On July 4, 1776, “The pursuit of happiness…” became part of the United States Declaration of Independence, a watershed moment in American history.
What an odd sentiment to have included with “life” and “liberty,” the other two things that the Declaration declared essential.
In the world as we mostly know it, the pursuit of money or power, status or even love are closer to what most of us view as essential, based on how we spend our time and energy. But happiness? What might that be?
It is said that it is the journey, not the destination, which is most important in our lives. I have always thought that this was Jefferson’s view, and that his “pursuit of happiness” was a salute to the power of deciding how we invest that most precious of commodities…our time.
Embedded in the “pursuit of happiness” is the obligation to decide what to pursue. One of the revelations of aging is that people really don’t care what you do. They have their own happiness to pursue.
The lesson is that living one’s life based on the perceived judgments of others is a mug’s game…one that you can’t win. And making no decision, simply following the line of least resistance, is not the thing that pursuit of happiness has offered you as an American.
In our troubled world, pursuing happiness may seem to be a sybaritic indulgence. Still, Jefferson was more of an Epicurean, which instructs that pleasure is the greatest good, but defines pleasure as something akin to a wise moderation in all things and a dutiful sense of responsibility. The Declaration might have guaranteed “the pursuit of pleasure” by this definition. As a moderate Epicurean who had a good sense of the deep strain of Puritanism in his country, he wisely saw that this would have been a step too far.
The pursuit of happiness. As we mull these words from the 18th century and how they might apply to the lives we live in 2017, it may be useful to calculate whether we are, in fact, pursuing happiness. The perennial yearning toward self-improvement, losing 20 pounds, increasing our net worth…is that the pursuit of happiness?
Is turning away from the pain and trouble of the world, in a sense, pursuing the happiness of distracting oneself and simply not thinking about it?
Is walking out of the house on a clear night, looking up at the sky and trying to identify the visible constellations the pursuit of happiness?
Perhaps that star-gazing is closest to what Jefferson had in mind.
The message of the Declaration of Independence would seem to be that, along with the incredible gift of being alive and living in a nation that is still one with genuine liberty, comes the obligation to savor the sweetness of life. Not to gorge on empty calories and fall for the rhetoric of fear and anger, but to roll one’s tongue around the joy of being able to savor life.”