THE PUSUIT OF HAPPINESS

“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.

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons


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.

Author: Hedfones (own work); CC0 1.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Hedfones (own work); CC0 1.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


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”.

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons


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.”

Author: StickyWikis (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: StickyWikis (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


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11 Responses to THE PUSUIT OF HAPPINESS

  1. cnxtim says:

    This reminds me of an anecdote told to me by my good friend Kenzo Sugiura who at the time was in charge Brother Industries US operations.

    Walking around the Brother factory in Bartlett Tennessee, he stopped to chat to one of the production line workers (as Japanese managers are wont to do).

    In response to his question “and what do you expect from your career at Brother? the answer came “Why I will be a multi-millionaire”.

    Astounded, Ken went on to ask the worker in private, how he might achieve that? The answer came,

    “Why i am born American, so i can achieve anything”.

    From a foundation $6.50 an unskilled hour no education, and no plan.

    I think naivete and the expectation of happen-stance are more in keeping with the American psyche. But who knows, maybe this little story defines the American pursuit of the big H.

    Another little anecdote with Ken, we were back in Sydney on our way to lunch at a marvellous seafood restaurant tucked away on Pittwater when Ken asked me to stop at a business equipment shop in Manly Vale displaying a Brother sign.
    .
    After a nice interlude and congratulating the owner of his well laid out display of the latest Brother Typewriters then thanking him earnestly for his support of Brother products and promising to follow up on a few items of interest to the owner, the owner asked the new CEO of Brother worldwide “are you my new rep?

    Without faltering, Ken replied “yes, i am”.and on leaving, passed over in full ceremonial reverence his business card.

    That was happy day for one Japanese and two Aussies.

    You don’t need a document to pursue happiness, in the right place at the right time it just happens…

  2. Adriana says:

    Mr. Hayman, thank you for this invitation to philosophy… it is hard not to notice that for having that kind of winter day that makes you happy … you don’t need much wealth.

    I’ve also made one empiric observation… people have a certain level of happiness which they build in their childhood and youth. This level remains constant throughout their lives… and not even exceptional events like getting an exceptional job or the death of someone dear can change it. Depending on the event that produced the sudden burst of happiness or despair… “recovery” can take from several days to several months, after which we are all back at the same level… (trauma and illumination being the rare exceptions)

    And if this theory would be general and not just a particularity of my acquaintances … I would say that it is easier for “happy” people to acquire more wealth in life than for “unhappy” people… and still, their state of happiness having nothing to do with their wealth except for the fact that the energy required in the pursuit for more… can rather be found in an already existing state of happiness.

    From all your experience… would you agree? Did you personally feel less or more happy around 25?

    Thank you! Adriana

    • leshayman says:

      Adriana, this is very insightful.
      I agree that some people build a well of happiness in their youth, and keep it topped up throughout their lives, and that after some sad moments, that may diminish it for a while, they can top it up again quickly.
      I have had a happy life that has had nothing to do with what I had, or how much I had. I feel that my almost 70 years have been at a “high happiness” level, even when I was recovering from cancer 25 years ago.
      At a personal level, I have not found that money makes you happy … all it really does is give you more choices.
      Happiness is very individual … and I agree with you that small things can keep the “well” topped up all the time. It has more to do with how we look at everything even more than what happens. I can top up the well just by being treated with wagging tails and excitement from my dogs in the morning. Les

  3. Charlotte says:

    What you and Groucho so aptly describe is living in the moment – not regretting the past, not fearing the future, but enjoying the moment for what it is. I try to live this. It’s not always easy, but I think it’s the closest we can get to happiness.

  4. Scott says:

    Hi Les
    No matter your social standing you can still get the “blues”,but as you pointed out in another blog money gives you choices.
    If the French are resigned to thier lot i’m sure given a choice to change a bad situation would make them happier at least for the time being, until the next situation then repeat step one.
    Regards Scott

  5. Jen says:

    great blog- as always. I believe we suffer here in the USA from a feeling of always wanting more, and beleiving that the more will make us happy. Such a false and vicious cycle.

    • leshayman says:

      Jen, I wasn’t particularly picking on the US as I feel that wanting more than one has is true of people everywhere. I have little issue with it if it really makes people happy to acquire things … I just don’t believe that it does for most people, or at best is very shortlived. Happiness comes in small continuous doses … the problem is that most people don’t realise it when it comes. Les

  6. John Burke says:

    I no longer believe in happiness, for it is fleeting. I do believe in Love and serenity. I have learned that humility and acceptance are the cornerstones of serenity.
    Great post, I was happy when I was reading it, but now it’s over.

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