12/12/2014 09:27 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2015

The Pursuit of Happiness Is Folly

Andrey Artykov via Getty Images

At this time of the year, we are consumed with consumerism. What are we going to get? What are we going to buy for so and so? Will all this result in a truly happy time? Happiness, what is it?

Itʻs enshrined in our founding document. The Declaration of Independence tells us God endowed us with certain unalienable rights, that among these are..."the pursuit of Happiness." Right up there with Life and Liberty is Happiness. Itʻs even capitalized. Thus our founders set us on this impossible quest, like Don Quixote, to pursue something we have no control over. Happiness is not a condition, itʻs an occurrence.

Look at the derivation of the word. It comes from the Norse happ which means luck or chance. Happening shares its root with happy. Happiness, the state of being happy is impossible to maintain because when we truly analyze the times when we felt happy, we have to admit they were the result of occurrences not a condition. The surprise party, a great meal, the unexpected gift, the simultaneous climax, the news the tumor is benign are a few examples that come to mind.

Take a moment and make a list of the times you were happy. Now look at what the causes were. I think you will find moments of happiness were brought about by things outside of you, things that happened to you, or things inside of you, which you caused to occur. Admit it. Can you maintain the feeling? Itʻs not possible.

What then, were the founders doing when they told us that God gave us the right to pursue "Happiness?" I can only surmise the "pursuit" was what God gave the right to do; to go after the circumstances which would result in happiness. Happiness was a goal. Thus Americans have become a sybaritic, self-obsessed people whose raison dʻetre is to be happy; pursing that unattainable condition like Ponce de Leon vainly searching for the fountain of youth.

The act of going after that goal, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, is what the founders meant. We are free to decide what our happiness would be and to try to attain it. This dictum has rationalized all sorts of behavior. While it may have resulted in ones happiness it causes much suffering; for every winner, there have to be a larger group of losers.

Might this be the reason why we are among the most self-medicated people in the history of the world? Even the Dalai Lama, when he talks about happiness, describes contentment. "I usually describe happiness in the sense of more satisfaction, happiness is not necessarily some pleasure experience, but neutral sort of experience, that can bring deep satisfaction.*" He goes on to say that what makes him happy is peace of mind that comes from warm heartedness and universal love.
It is my contention that the pursuit of happiness is folly. Because one cannot consciously create luck or chance. They are, by definition, outside of and beyond ones ability to control.

What the founders should have said, was God gave us the tools to become content; to reach a place of peace and love if we use Godʻs gifts appropriately. We should give up pursuing happiness and realize that we can achieve it only by giving it to others.