Today we are so bombarded with images on television, Facebook and other social media of smiling people, buying goods galore and engaged in fun activities that it seems like this should be normal. We should be smiling all the time. I think it no coincidence that the marketing of gleaming white teeth is big business. Even more, we should be enthusiastic about our happiness. Quiet happiness is not enough.
If we are not exhibiting this happiness, many of us conclude something must be wrong with us. We are outsiders, not part of the euphoric world we see depicted. Some of us get caught up in the frenzy of buying things to bring “joy” to our lives. Some of us get depressed. Some of us turn to various drugs.
At this time of year when we wish people a “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” it is important to consider the possible meanings of happiness and step back and consider what happiness really means to you, not what it seems to mean to the people creating the ubiquitous images.
So I will start by talking about my idea of happiness. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence he included among the list of our “inalienable rights” the “pursuit of happiness.” Pursuithas two meanings. The first is the idea of chasing after something. The second is an on-going activity.
We tend today to do the “chasing” of happiness. That perfect state, hedonistic and self-centered, keeps being just beyond our reach. There would hardly be a market for all the outpouring of “new and improved” goods, self-help books and classes, etc. if this were not the case.
Jefferson, however, was referring to the second meaning of the word in its broadest context involving not just the self, but the family, community and nation. To me at least “pursuit of happiness” has the connotation of experiencing well-being—health, safety, adequate resources to live at least modestly and a purpose in life that gives it meaning. Part of that purpose, inherent in Jefferson’s idea of “pursuit of happiness,” is striving to make sure those around us can enjoy such well-being to the greatest extent possible.
Well-being also involves taking the time for gratitude for the big and little things in our lives. It was a platitude to me as a child, but as I have grown older I understand it as a truism. Celebrating a meal well-cooked, the giggle of a grandchild, the smile of a stranger can add so much to one’s well-being, one’s happiness.
I do not want to sound glib. To me “pursuit of happiness” is not just “making do” and “accepting what life has given us,” although at times it involves these. It is keeping front and center the goals of well-being and letting these guide our choices in lifestyle and the larger issues we involve ourselves in. This is not easy. Writing Examined Lives was hardly a joyful experience in and of itself, but it contributed in the end to my mental well-being. My racing mind was now more at ease. I sorted out a lot of my emotions and understood a great deal more about myself. And I wrote the book with a larger purpose in mind—to draw the curtain back from mental illness and help combat the stigma attached to it. I hope that Examined Lives does contribute in at least a small way to the well-being of others who realize they are hardly alone.
A Happy New Year to all!