The Practice of Happiness

The Declaration of Independence proclaims that the “pursuit of happiness” is an “unalienable right.”  This means if aliens invade the Earth and start zapping everyone with laser guns, they won’t be able to exterminate our ability to pursue happiness.  This may sound encouraging to some (except for the alien invasion part), but we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to seeking happiness.

Many of us spend our entire lives chasing the elusive feeling of being happy.  We act as if we are zig-zagging across a field, tightly clutching butterfly nets as we attempt to snag a flying insect.  We tell ourselves that once we finally capture one of these colorful creatures, we will experience true bliss and live happily ever after. 

Except no one warned us the average lifespan of a butterfly is two weeks.  Soon we’re running in circles again in the pursuit of these creatures, stuck in an endless loop of seeking external circumstances in our quest for happiness.

As great a wordsmith as Mr. Jefferson was, he should have used another word in place of “pursuit” in the second sentence of his revolutionary document.  What the 33-year-old intended to say was that pursuing happiness is not a chase, it is a vocation. More exactly, it is a “practice.”

Former Harvard Professor Arthur Schlesinger argued in a 1964 essay titled “The Lost Meaning of ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’” that the “historic manifesto proclaimed the practicing rather than the quest of happiness as a basic right.”  Doctors practice medicine. Lawyers practice law.  People should practice happiness as if it were their chosen occupation or pastime.  

This means we should “practice” our “practice,” habitually performing the activities that reinforce our happiness.  What exactly are those activities and routines that lead to us living our best lives? Drop your butterfly nets, watch out for aliens, and stay tuned to find out.

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