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Your Pursuit of Happiness

Seeking happiness is our inalienable right, says everyone from Thomas Jefferson to the Dalai Lama

By Suzanne Gerber

I was 10 hours into a 12-hour drive back to New York City a few years ago. The sky was blackening, traffic was thickening, and let’s just say I wasn’t the happiest of campers. It was too late in the day for more caffeine. So I flipped on the radio, hoping for anything but static and bad pop music, when I landed on the most improbable yet auspicious thing: a rebroadcast of the Interfaith Summit on Happiness, with Krista Tippett (host of NPR’s “On Being”) interviewing four spiritual leaders. 

In a round-table discussion, Tippett posed questions to Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church; Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom; Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University; and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

I wish I had space to recount for you all my favorite moments from that exhilarating program. (Fortunately, we have the Internet and I have been able to listen to it again.) First His Holiness spoke about viewing negative situations from a more holistic perspective (like, having your country destroyed and living in exile with your countrymen), and how that helps you reframe your beliefs and stay open to the positive.
(The Dalai Lama feels so strongly about attuning to the positive that the very first sentence of his 1998 book, The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, is: “I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness.”)
Tippett next turned to Rabbi Sacks and asked him for the Jewish take on the subject.

“It is true that if you read the Jewish literature and … history, happiness is not the first word that comes to mind,” Sacks said to big laughs. “We [Jews] do degrees in misery, post-graduate angst and advanced guilt. And yet somehow or other, when all of that is at an end, we get together and we celebrate.

“The definition of a Jew,” he continued, “as it says in Genesis 34, is one who struggles, wrestles with God and with humanity and prevails. [In that chapter] Jacob says something very profound to the angel. He says, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’ And that is how I feel about suffering. When something bad happens, I will not let go of that bad thing until I have discovered the blessing that lies within it.”
(MORE: Scientific Proof That Happiness Is a Choice)

And yet the more I talk to people, the more I find that suffering is swallowing their happiness — or convincing them it’s a luxury. They’re too stressed, or anxious, or worried about their personal and our collective future — or just too distracted and caught up in the daily maelstrom of life — to actively pursue happiness. (Except, perhaps, for a few hours on the weekend. How sad!)
One of my great heroes put happiness on a pedestal above all else. In fact, he established it as the nation’s credo. Writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson borrowed heavily from one of his heroes, 17th-century political visionary John Locke, who asserted that government’s role was protecting its citizens’ pursuit of life, liberty and property. But Jefferson so valued happiness that he changed Locke’s wording to read “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and unalienable rights; and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Jefferson was a famously happy person — and the source of his joy was not wealth. He wrote, “The Giver of life gave it for happiness and not for wretchedness" and “the glow of one warm thought is to me worth more than money.” (Granted, that’s an easier position to defend when you have plenty of the green stuff.) 

But there’s an even deeper and more inspirational root of Jeffersonian happiness: Epicurus, the ancient Greek whose philosophy is today most commonly associated with the pleasure principle. But true Epicureanism has a moral underpinning, which was familiar to our classically educated forebears. When political philosophers like John Locke, Samuel Johnson and Thomas Jefferson spoke of “the pursuit of happiness,” they were referencing the Greco-Roman tradition in which happiness is inextricably tied to courage, moderation and justice.

Expounding on the Epicurean model, Jefferson wrote, “Happiness is the aim of life, virtue is the foundation of happiness, and utility is the test of virtue.” His acid test for virtue? It has to actually yield happiness. As Jefferson also said, “If the wise be the happy man, he must be virtuous also, for without virtue, happiness cannot be.”


Not to be all Pollyanna-ish about it — wait, on second thought, that might not be a bad thing — but happiness doesn’t just come to us.

(MORE: Think Positive, Be Happier: The Invaluable Lessons of 'Pollyanna')
We need to cultivate it, and that starts by remembering that it truly is our birthright. If you’ve fallen off the happiness wagon and aren’t sure how to get back on, perhaps the following quotes on happiness will help. They're a good start, anyway.

On Happiness

“A person will be just about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” —Abraham Lincoln
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” —Mahatma Gandhi
“Many people think that if they were only in some other place, or had some other job, they would be happy. Well, that is doubtful. So get as much happiness out of what you are doing as you can and don't put off being happy until some future date.” —Dale Carnegie
‘Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”  —Buddha

“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a month, get married. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else.”  —Chinese proverb

Suzanne Gerber, former Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue, writes about inspirational topics including health, food, travel, relationships and spirituality. Read More
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