In Pursuit of Happiness
By A. D. Freudenheim

24 December 2000

In a heady moment in 1776, Thomas Jefferson and a group of American colonists signed the Declaration of Independence which, in addition to declaring our freedom from the English crown, also stated boldly that we are "endowed … with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." To Americans these words are often the endgame of human life; more than two hundred years later they still represent accurately our core conception of what it means to be free in the most fundamental ways.

Yet in the time since then, we Americans have turned happiness into a fetish. Instead of celebrating our ability to enjoy a range of emotions, enabled by this freedom, we have pathologized most forms of sadness, creating a disease which must be removed from our society at all costs. Sadness, or depression, is a human problem, and not one that will ever go away - because the causes of depression, whether chemical and biological, purely emotional, or momentary and circumstantial, will also never go away.

We may experience sadness in a number of forms, using words with shades of meaning: the blues, melancholia, heavy-heartedness, funk, gloom, the doldrums, depression. Unfortunately, we sometimes lose our perspective - our ability to distinguish between these different shades at an individual level - and so we seek help: outside counsel, who can hopefully pull up the shades, throw open the windows, and let us look out and see where we are standing in the landscape of our lives in a way we might have missed before. Sometimes, the sadness will pass, and we can identify the causes, and the necessary resolutions; when a parent or child dies, when we lose a job, fight with a friend, worry about others, feeling some variation of emotions, and of sadness in particular, is natural and likely temporary. In some people, or at some moments in life, sadness may turn into depression, a state with a fairly specific definition: a psychiatric disorder characterized by an inability to concentrate, insomnia, loss of appetite, anhedonia, feelings of extreme sadness, guilt, helplessness and hopelessness, and thoughts of death.[1] In those cases, more serious treatments are needed - and should be sought.

American society, however, has become less tolerant of accepting the markers between types of depression - between the truly dysfunctional and the more common, passing forms. We have managed to make all sadness seem abnormal, and created a culture in which most people's perspective is determined by the extent to which they perceive those around them to be happy. Are they more successful than I? Are they doing more things, buying more things, enjoying more things about life? The American "can-do" attitude, our declared right to the "pursuit of happiness," has been transformed it into a need to be happy, without any pursuit. We now presume that we are always supposed to be happy; society, in any case, will presume it on our behalf.

This has had some dramatic consequences. As a society, the impact has been the creation of a new kind of materialism and perceived productivity - a new set of values, where the self is most important, wrapped in a veneer of collective, communal striving. We all work twelve or fourteen or sixteen hour days, together - so that we can think of ourselves as happy and successful individually. But material achievements through productivity lend a false sense of happiness, dependent on a constant cycle of earn-and-spend, where neither the earning nor the spending are truly satisfying.

At an individual level, this change makes it harder for many Americans to accept life as it is, to determine their direction, and ultimately to be happy with those things that should make us happy: family, friends, and the little glories of living, whether they're artistic or scientific. We can no longer pursue, because we do not believe that we should have to do so; in a culture of instant gratification, working to achieve happiness seems an absurd proposition. When we perceive those around us constantly happy, we set the bar so high that we can never reach it. And when the strategic deployment of our credit cards fails to enliven us, we can mitigate the problem through medication - another instant remedy to the problem of sadness.

An entirely separate culture has been created on a foundation of therapeutic needs. From self-help to psychology, psychiatry, and (psycho)pharmacology, the dispensing of happiness has become a big business. Therapy (talk therapy and drug therapy) is a valuable tool; it should offer a path to understanding, assistance in the pursuit of greater and better self-knowledge. (For those with serious depression, it can be, literally, a lifesaver.) All too often, however, we have turned it into a way to correct our movements on the path to happiness, creating a trajectory designed to avoid obstacles that might come between us and pleasure. We have lost the will to overcome, because to work through problems might be to discover something about ourselves that cannot be soothed by a simple transaction.

"Know thyself." This is one of the two inscriptions on the ancient oracle at Delphi, in the Temple of Apollo. Self-knowledge is a difficult ideal; it can sometimes serve to make visible the walls that enclose us, rather than show us the path out from behind them. But the process of overcoming - the pursuit of happiness - is a lifetime's work, and the path is ever changing. Without self-knowledge we cannot know what we truly want, or how to get there. And without the obstacles to overcome, we will never know if, in fact, we have made it.

[1]American Heritage Dictionary of the English
Language, Fourth Edition.
Copyright 2000, by A. D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.