My old friend, Andy stopped by the house for a few hours yesterday to touch base. He’s on the return leg of a car trip from his home in Toronto to visit the western US states, then back home, eventually through Chicago and Ontario.
If you fly into Toronto, you might be lucky enough to ride to your hotel as a passenger in his Yellow Cab.
Andy was born in Canada, but lived a few years of his childhood in Lincoln, Nebraska a couple of houses south of my family’s house. He’s my only rare childhood friend, who remained in touch with everyone from our old neighborhood “gang”, through the years.
Andy, another pal, Jeff, my late brother Mark, and I weren’t an actual gang, only our parents refered to our clique with that title. We were a rather harmless group of boys. The worst trouble we ever got into was when Jeff accidentally tossed a Frisbee onto the patio of our next door neighbor. The flying disc hit Mrs. Salzwedel on the top of her head then knocked over her morning Bloody Mary. Of course, this triggered much raucus mirth among us boys. Even after many apologies from us, she never forgave us. She often peeked through her curtain to spy on our activities.
This year, Andy wanted to get in touch with what is left of our “gang”, just for old-time’s sake. First, Andy saw the alpha male of our old group. Jeff manages a media consulting company in Hollywood, California. Jeff gave Andy a VIP tour of the offices then they spent the rest of the day at Malibu Beach, just rehashing old memories.
Andy is one of the happiest people I’ve ever known. His infectious joy touches everybody who knows him. I think his happiness is simply an inate part of his personality. His upbringing was no more nor no less average for lower middle-class American kids. He wasn’t given special privileges nor was he ever abused. He lived contentedly with his younger sister and divorced mother. Although his family wasn’t at all religious, they were some of the kindest, most generous people in the neighborhood. His mom was the self-appointed, unofficial welcoming committee for new arrivals in our part of Lincoln.
I have long wondered about Andy’s happiness. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a blend of nature and nurture. I think that some people are simply born with cheerful, happy personalities. Even if they grow up in adverse situations, they somehow turn out fine. If their childhood is more pleasant than normal, they really shine. Andy is in the latter category. When you see Andy, you never want to let him go.
Meanwhile, most of us live fairly “normal” lives filled with work, duties, obligations, along with times of recreation, and celebration. Sometimes we feel sad, other times we’re happy. Most of us wish we could have more joy and less sadness. We’re all fellow travellers on the quest to pursue happiness.
Along the way to happiness, we sometimes create fantasies in our minds which actually prevent us from being happy. If only we land that dream job, find the perfect companion, become wealthy, or achieve power, then we’ll be happy. This is the way most people believe happiness should happen for them. I sometimes think of one truism shared by Earl Nightingale, “…[A] little checking will reveal that throughout all recorded history the majority of mankind has an unbroken record of being wrong about most things, especially important things.” This sentence has haunted me for years.
Another way, many of us seek happiness through escapes from life. Maybe we over-indulge in entertainment, sex, drugs, alcohol, or other thrills. Certainly these things can be fun, thrilling, and distracting. Ultimately, though, they’re fleeting and sometimes cause us to be frustrated and unhappy. At some point, even the least priggish and moralistic of us understand the futility of cheap thrills.
On the other hand, there is the belief that a “life of service” is the way to happiness. If one suppresses one’s selfish desires and focuses only on the betterment of humanity, that person will then achieve supreme happiness.
But that doesn’t work, either. We regularly meet or hear of people who work to make the world a better place by way of their moralism and being do-gooders. Many of us soon realize that, the religionists, politicians, and moralists come off as nosey, unhappy people. When we become their followers, rarely do we find ourselves truly on the path to happiness. We only ape what is expected of us.
Happiness has been pursued since prehistoric times. More recently, the pursuit of happiness was even written into the founding document of the United States. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This statement from our Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, is more than an affirmation, a doctrine, or a code of law. If you look closely at the wording, there is much wisdom to be found in it. All men (women, too) are created equal. Every single one of us belongs to the species Homo sapiens sapiens. Regardless of hair or skin color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, education level, belief or non-belief, without exception, we’re all human beings.
We’re all endowed by our “Creator”, whatever our personal concept of that might be, with certain unalienable rights.
What is “unalienable”? Something that cannot be denied, taken away, transferable to another, or incapable of being repudiated. What are rights? Those things that are due to people by claim or guarantees. These are legal principles serving as the underlying foundation of freedom, truth, justice, and ethics. So, every single one of us technically own legal guarantees that cannot be taken from us.
Among those possessions that cannot be legally taken from us is life, itself. We instinctively know and treasure our own human lives. All human beings have the right to live.
What about liberty? My Webster’s College dictionary defines it as “the positive enjoyment of social, political, or economic rights and privileges”, “the power of choice”, “the power to do as one pleases”.
So, what is happiness? Wikipedia says that “Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions, ranging from contentment to intense joy.”
In other words, if you are an American, you are theoretically entitled to live your life in any way you deem fit, and to strive for happiness. Because you and I live under the same guarantees, you cannot legally take away my inalienable rights nor can I take away those that belong to you.
When we even casually review American history, we find that our least happy times occurred when we restricted some people’s inalienable rights. If our observation is honest, we notice that some people exercised and enjoyed far more rights and privileges than other people. Not everybody had the rights to enjoy liberty, nor to pursue happiness as they saw fit.
Sometimes their very lives were snuffed out by some who wish to restrict the rights of certain people.
How does all of this relate to the pursuit of happiness? I like to think of happiness as an integrated process, not a thing. Happiness can only truly happen when we not only deeply care about our own contentment and joy, but when we also deeply care about the happiness of everyone else. The greatest degree of inner peace, contentment, and personal joy comes as a result of our cultivation of genuine empathy, compassion, and love. The more we sincerely care for the liberty and pursuit of happiness by other people, the happier we feel.
This process automatically develops into a feedback loop. The more we wish for others to be happy as they see fit, the actual liberty others enjoy is the fulfillment of our own wish. We can wish for still more people to be content, they become happy, too, then we feel even more happiness.
Wishing for other people’s happiness is actually a positive, selfish act. If I want to be happy, I will want others to be happy. If I want others to be happy, then I will be happy. In today’s lingo, we call this a win-win proposition.
As I analyze this view of the pursuit of happiness, I think about my great-aunt Emma. She was the most joyful, happy person in my family. Rarely, did I ever see a frown mar her loving, beautiful face. One morning, years ago, when I was “helping” her bake cinnamon rolls, I asked aunt Emma why she was always so very happy. She answered that she can only be happy when she sees that other people are truly happy.
Emma said that people are very happy whenever they eat wonderful, delicious meals. Her greatest, personal pleasures were cooking and baking. All she had to do was share her favorite pleasures with others to be happy. She really did derive great joy from cooking. Most of the time I saw aunt Emma, she was in the process of baking something special or preparing an impeccable meal. Traditional smorgasbords were her specialty. I don’t remember any of her guests lacking smiles and hearty laughter. Her home was always a place of joy.
Emma was a traditional Swedish Lutheran, but I never once heard her preach nor moralize. Emma didn’t believe in pushing religion or politics. She only practiced compassion and generosity. Because she unconditionally loved so many people with unabashed style, that love and joy returned as the springboard to more happiness.
What can we take away from people like Andy and aunt Emma? Because we all have unalienable rights to happiness, it is possible to understand that anyone at all who we may meet, regardless of circumstances, categories, differences, or whatever, we are all homo sapiens sapiens. Our basic natures are the same. We all desire love and happiness.