February 24, 2014 11 Comments
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights: that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
American Founding Father and principal author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
No question that these are lofty and worthwhile aspirations, despite the fact that I have always believed that the only inalienable God-given right may be the “right to life”, as liberty is more under the control and administration of those who rule, and happiness is generally out of the list of responsibilities of both deities and governments. I also find it interesting that whilst there is the right to life and to liberty that there is no right to happiness itself, only its pursuit.
It is also worth remembering that history tells us that when the Declaration of Independence was still in draft form, some who were involved in its drafting felt that “the pursuit of property” should be included, so that the right to material gain should also be enshrined as a human right.
I was on a flight last week between Bordeaux and Paris on my way to a series of business meetings in Germany, and found myself seated beside some visiting American wine distributers on their way home after visiting our region. I couldn’t help but listen in on their conversation which was mainly about the topic of how miserable French people are and how they seemed to have little real commitment in their national character for the “pursuit of happiness”, unlike Americans who, they seemed to feel, had the pursuit of happiness embedded deep in their psyche.
I found this conversation to be fascinating, as whilst I have long found the French to be a fairly negative, cynical and pessimistic nation and, as a generalisation, I have found Americans to be much more optimistic and positive people, I have not really found Americans to be particularly happier than the French, despite their belief in their “unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness”. In fact I have generally found Americans to be more dissatisfied with their lot in life, and always wanting more than they had, as compared to the French who tended to be more accepting of what they had, maybe in the understanding that there was little chance of them being able to drive any change in their situation, at any time.
This disparity therefore made me interested to at least try to find out whether there were any reasonable definitions of happiness, and after some searching I realised that it is almost impossible to define happiness, as the best that the dictionaries could come up with were “the state of being happy”, and “an experience that makes you happy”. Both may be very interesting, but neither of them actually being particularly very enlightening. Even some that attempted to be more specific such as “a state of well-being and contentment” and “a pleasurable or satisfying experience” tended to be fairly broad, and also very fleeting. A state of well-being can last a scant few minutes as can a pleasurable and satisfying experience, and surely if an entire nation is committed to the pursuit of happiness, shouldn’t the results of its endeavours be a bit more lasting than the occasional feel-good burst ?
I also struggled with the idea that contentment could be synonymous with happiness, as some of the smartest people I know are never content, but could not be described as unhappy. Even American author Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) supports me in this belief as he said “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know”.
The question is whether we have all become somewhat obsessed with the whole idea of happiness, and with the need to pursue its attainment, as it seems to me that for most people happiness appears to be, at most, the absence of pain, sadness and boredom.
So if we can define some of the things that can stop happiness, can we also define some of the things that actually help to generate sustainable happiness ? For example, were some of the Founding Fathers valid when they suggested that “pursuit of property” should have been included in the Declaration of Independence, and would its attainment make us any happier ?
It appears that they may actually have been on to something, despite their suggestion having been rejected by Jefferson, no doubt through the power of holding the pen.
So, can money actually buy happiness ?
It appears that it may be able to do so to some degree, at least in the USA. A recent survey by Pew Research found that while overall 34% of people surveyed described themselves as being very happy, amongst those who earned over $100,000 annually the number was over 50%, versus only 24% of people who earned less than $30,000 annually.
Another Founding Father Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) would not have been impressed having believed that “Money has never made man happy, nor will it, there is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more of it one has the more one wants.”
Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was firmly in the opposite camp as he said that “When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is.”
I understand that happiness will mean different things to all of us and that it is totally subjective. I know that one of the things that can make me happy is to come inside to a warm house on a winter’s weekend morning after having finished all my chores outside with the animals and in the garden, and to sit in front of a log fire listening to some classical music or opera or, at this time of the year, watching the 6-nations rugby on the TV, all of which may make someone else extremely unhappy.
American comedian Groucho Marx (1890-1977) actually summed it up best for me in his take on happiness. “Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.”