Time to Quit “The Pursuit of Happiness”

The US Constitution

“I’ve just realised, there is something wrong with the Constitution.” These words echo through the darkness above our marital bed. They are hard to ignore, however ill-timed and as I come round to consciousness I feel irritatingly compelled to ask “Why?” as opposed to sinking down sensibly beneath the covers.

It turns out that my husband has awoken me to express the very same idea I had already expressed two nights before, but whilst the lights were on and when it would have been reasonable for him to remember it.  Apparently he hadn’t, so now the idea is his.

These sort of interjections are not uncommon, with a penchant for barbed wire literature or grumpy literature as I gather it is also known, the desire to share some political or historical fact can just be too much for my beloved consort to contain. On the scale of ways to be woken up they tend to beat the enquiry “Are you awake?” Followed by “I can’t sleep.” and the scuffling sound of the search for a sleeping pill.

I am hereby re-appropriating my idea, although I doubt very much that I am alone in having voiced it. The Pursuit of Happiness should be removed from the US constitution and erased from the American psyche and much happiness would ensue.

Happiness is a highly ephemeral thing. All you have to do is realise you are experiencing a happy moment and in so objectifying it you have already stepped out of it and partially or totally ruined it. It is like realising one is falling asleep – the realisation jolts one back to wakefulness from delicious slumber. To constitutionalise the pursuit of anything as ephemeral as happiness is bound to bring discontent.  Unfortunately, according to a World Health Organisation’s 2011 report, this appears to be the case. More than 30% of Americans suffer from Major Depressive Episodes (MDE).

The History Boys by Alan Bennett

One of my favourite quotes is from The History Boys by play write Alan Bennett. In the final scene the character Posner  summarises his situation ten or so years on “I am not happy, but I am not unhappy about it.”  Thank goodness the constitution had not got to him or he might have been a downright mess. As he points out at the beginning of the play the odds are stacked against him: “I’m a Jew… I’m small… I’m homosexual… and I live in Sheffield… I’m fucked.”

Dr Edith Weisskopf-Joelsen*, who was professor of psychology at the University of Georgia would also have appreciated Posner’s self-summary. She wrote “our current mental-hygiene stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy.”

I have a healthy respect for life being tough and have long been reassured by a quote my father came up with during a time of what felt like infinite stress: “Life is that difficult stage between the cradle and the grave”.  Sitting hunched up against a major deadline, with a sheaf of notes in one hand and a book on fascism and sexuality in the other, this provided some comfort and perspective.

Given the ephemeral nature of happiness and the tricky nature of our existence, the likelihood of attempting to align the two in a daily apotheosis of joy and perfection is bound for failure – unless one has very low standards in which case one is probably not thinking about it at all and just bumbling along amiably, or maybe even happily.

To feel entitled to happiness, an obvious next step to the value enshrined in the Constitution, is even more perilous. Unhappiness and the sense of having been cheated align all too well.  Is it precisely the lack of the sense of entitlement to happiness that results in China scoring lowest, 12%, in Major Depressive Episodes in the same WHO report? The fact is that life and happiness just don’t work in synchrony without a degree of legwork to bring them together.

Viktor Frankl – 1940s

So it was with delight that I discovered that Viktor Frankl, who has printed and sold more than 12 million copies of his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”  agrees with me. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist, who survived Auschwitz and developed the theory of “Logotherapy” describes his concentration camp experience and how his theories helped him and many of his fellow sufferers to live through the hardships of camp existence.

“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.” – he says. Happiness should not be pursued it should ideally ensue from a) finding meaning in our life and b) from the actions we take to support that meaning.

Logotherapy which stems from the Greek word logos (“meaning”) is based on the premise that once a person can identify or ‘detect’ the current meaning to his life (this can change through time) then he will also find the mental health and strength to overcome life’s adversities be they large or small.

The time has come to renounce the pursuit of happiness, to give up the chase and abandon the fast lane, fast-food approach. It is time to take the byroads and sit a while in a routier over a steak and glass of red wine.

Build for happiness but, like with the Medusa, never look directly at it.

*Follower of logotherapy.

And now just postscript – for the many therapists who risk messing our lives up even further – as if the Constitution were not enough.

Frankl was asked by an American psychoanalyst to define the difference between psychoanalysis and logotherapy. Frankl asked his interlocutor to describe psychoanalysis to which he responded, “During psychoanalysis, the patient must lie down on a couch and tell you things which are sometimes disagreeable to tell.” Frankl’s quickly improvised retort was “Now in logotherapy the patient may remain sitting erect but he must hear things which sometimes are very disagreeable to hear.” To some extent this was facetious but as he comments, there is something in it.  “Logotherapy, in comparison with psychoanalysis is a method less retrospective and less introspective. Logotherapy focuses rather on the future, that is to say the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future. At the same time logotherapy defocuses the vicious-circle formations and feedback mechanisms which play such a great part in the development of neuroses. Thus the typical self-centeredness of the neurotic is broken up instead of being continually fostered and reinforced.”

Frankl somewhat wryly describes the case of an American diplomat who came to his office in Vienna because he was discontented with his career and its foreign policy. After five years of psychanalytic treatment he had been told again and again that he should reconcile himself with his father because the US government and his superiors were nothing but father images.   As it turned out he was genuinely frustrated with his career and a career change proved the correct solution.  

DEDICATED TO: A dear friend and all sufferers of what Winston Churchill frequently referred to as his ‘black dog’, or depression.

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About InkQuillibrium

Writing for life.
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10 Responses to Time to Quit “The Pursuit of Happiness”

  1. jw park says:

    Terrific essay! Here is a link to another take on happiness written a few years ago by my nephew – then a Yale undergrad. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-bagg/are-you-happy_b_177404.html
    I guess the bottom line is we have to find happiness for ourselves but at least we have the opportunity to try, unlike most people on the planet who are just trying to eat and survive. Thanks for the thought provoking essay!

  2. What exactly is happiness? Bhutan has an intriguing way of measuring national success in terms of Gross National Happiness as opposed to American view of success as a nation which is Gross National Productivity? Interesting that the first thing that Bidon did after the election four years ago was to visit Bhutan to find out the secret of this holy grail.

  3. Well put read viktor frankl recently and was v inspired by his writing. Like ur website!!

  4. brian says:

    Below is the concluding excerpt from an article written on the History News Network website called,
    “The Surprising Origins and Meaning of the “Pursuit of Happiness”, by Carol V. Hamilton
    …”Properly understood, therefore, when John Locke, Samuel Johnson, and Thomas Jefferson wrote of “the pursuit of happiness,” they were invoking the Greek and Roman philosophical tradition in which happiness is bound up with the civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice. Because they are civic virtues, not just personal attributes, they implicate the social aspect of eudaimonia. The pursuit of happiness, therefore, is not merely a matter of achieving individual pleasure. That is why Alexander Hamilton and other founders referred to “social happiness.” During this political season, as Americans are scrutinizing presidential candidates, we would do well to ponder that.” If you are interested the rest of the article is at this web address: http://hnn.us/articles/46460.html

    • Thank you very much for submitting this. I have lived in the USA for 7 years this February and always been slightly disturbed by the concept of pursuing a flighty concept of a happy life replete with gas grills and white teeth. The original meaning gives it a much more solid grounding. As a neighbourhood I think we are fairly good on building social happiness but my sense is that it tends to waver as we get further afield.
      Thanks again,

  5. Pingback: Take It Back! | Not the Family Business!

  6. Benedict says:

    I read, and feel happy to leave a comment in this logos!

  7. Laurens says:

    Well, I found out it is mentioned in a number of state constitutions, and the Supreme Court has referred to that right in a number of occasions. Anyway, trips to the National Archives and the Supreme Court are always nice.

  8. Laurens says:

    Interestingly, the right to the pursuit of happiness in not in the US Constitution, but is mentioned in Declaration of Independence. So, the right is not constitutionalised, but I admit it is part of American psyche. Your call to erase this pursuit from the psyche looks to me as your pursuit towards happiness, which gives a nice paradox.

    • How embarrassing. I rather wish that it had been consort’s idea first and foremost now. I would say that it has almost burst my bubble… off to find something else to pursue obliquely, maybe visit the National Archives.
      Grazie Lorenzo.. and liked your photo of Milan Cathedral. There is a blog in that alone.

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