The Pursuit of Happiness
One of the phrases found in the declaration of independence that is oft cited as a default aspiration within the American ethos is “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”.
In the 2006 film starring Will Smith titled “The Pursuit of Happiness”, a struggling salesman is portrayed in a gut wrenching drama chronicling his efforts to scrape out a living for himself and his son in a cold and indifferent world.
At one point, Smith’s character narrates a monologue where he brings up the name sake of the movie from the declaration. He says, “How did they know to put the ‘pursuit’ part in there? That maybe happiness is something we can only pursue. And, maybe, we can actually never have it.”.
Happiness, as it turns out, is more of a momentary emotion than it is a destination or a cause to aspire towards. What people most often mean when they talk about a desire for happiness is better conveyed as a want for fulfillment.
The difference between happiness and fulfillment is broadly the difference in value multiplied by time. Happiness is a feeling in the moment while fulfillment is a general, lasting contentment.
So if fulfillment is preferable in comparison to happiness, should the saying be more aptly revised to “the pursuit of fulfillment”?
Maybe… but the reason isn’t that obvious until you dig into it.
Consider the following thought experiment:
If you could be given total fulfillment — absolute, complete and universally satisfying fulfillment — but it only lasted for 30 seconds, then you’d die… would that be preferable to, instead, live a life for 75 years filled with suffering, struggle and uncertainty on the possibility that you may find fulfillment along the way?
The answer to that question may seem obvious. Most people would quickly and unwaveringly choose the longer and less sure option.
But, why is that the obvious choice? It’s probably not why you think it is. Physiologically, we are all hardwired towards self preservation. It’s a biological imperative that serves every living thing in the hopes of proliferation and continuation of life into the future. Both for themselves and their progeny.
Therefore, based upon that fundamental instinct, any amount of lifetime that is longer than another is considered a default benefit in comparison. So then, with that in mind, is time the actual metric of importance that supersedes fulfillment in the end?
Would 200 years of suffering, struggle and uncertainty in an attempt to achieve fulfillment be better than 100? Would 500 be better than 200?
Do you see the conflation happening?
If fulfillment is in fact the end goal that makes all the suffering, struggle and uncertainty worth the centuries of effort, why wouldn’t a shorter yet guaranteed acquisition of fulfillment be preferable in comparison?
The Goal isn’t The Goal
Through the above thought experiment, it becomes more clear that the length of time doesn’t automatically equate to a life worth living. But, that’s not to say that the quote from the declaration of independence wouldn’t be better suited with the word fulfillment replacing that of happiness.
The reason why that would make sense though has less to do with the difference between the goals (though I still hold that fulfillment is more important) and more to do with the actual pursuit portion of the quote.
Because if you were to remove the pursuit by simply handing over a perfect 30 seconds of utter and complete fulfillment, logically and ethically that would be the correct answer to the thought experiment. But then, why does everyone choose the latter option?
Yes, we all want to continue living longer by default - and maybe that’s typically why people may choose it - but, it is the correct answer to give because it’s the actual pursuit that qualifies the fulfillment itself.
This is somewhat mirrored in another thought experiment in philosophy called The Experience Machine.
The reasoning that makes the pursuit the most vital variable that cannot be left out of the equation is beautifully revealed in an analogy forwarded by philosopher Alan Watts:
“No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve as it goes along, or that the whole object of playing is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it.”
In the same way that you wouldn’t want to just hear the final note of a musical composition, it’s the entire experience - or, pursuit - that is the whole point of any experience at all… including fulfillment.
Don’t Miss The Point
The most powerful and actionable wisdom that can be gained from this understanding is this:
Life isn’t guaranteed. Not the time span or the contents of it. What makes a life worth living is the point that you get to live at all.
This simple and ancient truth becomes a superpower when we find ourselves in the struggle and the suffering it brings. Being able to say “this too is fulfilling” because it’s yet another portion of the entire symphony takes the teeth from the bite of living and gives value and fulfillment within the pursuit itself.
~ Drew Weatherhead
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Enjoy the read, and stay curious.
Ah, what a deep subject. Sometimes I think life is as simple as eating a big bag of potato chips.
You enjoy each crunchy bite while wiping away the grease & salt -- until you are full. Most of the time those individual bites are much more pleasurable than the stuffed feeling at the end. xoxo
I think it’s all about feeling good about what you do, knowing you did your best to move forward in life, in helping others, in organization, in work you choose, in relationships. It is really a pursuit of smaller goals turning into bigger goals no matter what deity you pray to. Self help creates growth in that direction until you can see all viewpoints that create things.
I just hate being lied to. How do you solve a lie? At their core humans are basically good, except for the bloodsucking adrenochrome chasing pedaphilic bastards. They are not part of this consciousness and have to go. ... no redemption there.
It is a pursuit of happiness.