By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   July 26, 2022

One of my more popular epigrams (at least popular with me) says “A good friend is worth pursuing – But why would a good friend be running away?” In the case of this article, the good friend is Happiness, the pursuit of which, according to our hallowed Declaration of Independence, is a God-given right.

So, if we didn’t have that right, where would we be? Pursuing happiness illicitly? Or not even thinking about pursuing it? The whole thing is a muddle, which we owe to Thomas Jefferson, who was trying to write inspiring words to motivate colonists to break away from their “Mother Country” and set up a new country of their own. (He originally wanted to say “Life, Liberty, and Property,” but happiness was thought to be more emotionally appealing.)

Of course, there was nothing new about any of this. Practically every sovereign state in the world was once neither sovereign nor a state. And Jefferson was not the originator of the phrase, “pursuit of happiness,” which we can partly attribute to the English philosopher John Locke, in his book An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and (much closer to Jefferson’s own time) partly to Samuel Johnson, the multi-faceted English writer, who flourished about the time of the American Revolution, but who is probably best known, not for anything he wrote, but for a book written about him – the Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell, which is commonly said to be the greatest biography written in the English language.

But what about happiness? Is it really something you can pursue (and hopefully eventually catch)? What does it consist of? Some jumbled ideas which come to my mind are: hope, pleasure, satisfaction, joy, comfort, ease, peace of mind, relaxation – (no, I didn’t consult Mr. Roget to find these. He, no doubt, has many more).

We are accustomed to wishing, or being wished, a “Happy Birthday.” Should that day, when you are marking one more year you have lived – and one less left to live – be more cheerful than others? I suppose we celebrate the passing of time because there’s nothing else we can do about it.

But, like every other sacred precinct of our lives, Science has intruded into this area, seeking to determine, among other things, which people are the happiest. In geographical terms, North-West Europe seems to have a corner on this market – with Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden always in the top ten, and the U.S., it seems, never even in the running. 

And what are the factors which contribute to happiness in these polls? It certainly can’t be climate (which to me has always been of prime importance), since these countries can hardly claim to rank highly in sunshine, or even in rainless days. And it can’t be any great historical traditions of peace and plenty, since it was sheer poverty which drove many of their ancestors – notably the Vikings – renowned for their ferocity – to go plundering far afield. (The coasts of Britain were a tempting target, prompting the legendary prayer, said to have been common in those parts in Medieval times, “From the fury of the Northmen, good Lord deliver us.” But later, the whole Mediterranean became a Viking stomping-ground, notably the island of Sicily.)

But you’ll hear from many philosophers that happiness is an internal, not an external goal. And of course, there are whole religions and sects whose adherents devote themselves to being cleansed of all desire. In other words – if this makes sense – getting what you want is a matter of not wanting.

But for those of us more materialistically minded, there is still room, in our quest, for some tangible items, such as food, housing, friends, entertainment, and – dare I say it? – money. Despite the many wise injunctions concerning the incapacity of money to make us happy, we all know that there is no joy in not having enough.

The times when I personally have been happiest have been those when I’ve been busiest at some activity which seemed worthwhile at the time. That “worthwhile,” however, is a big qualifier, because, in the long run, from what we know about the ultimate fate of the Universe, can anything be really worthwhile?

But we are not living in the long run, are we? There is no “after all” in our little lives. To conclude with a somewhat more consoling thought:

“The secret of happiness is to accept reality, but then put it out of your mind.”  


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