…And the Pursuit of Happiness

I mentioned in my first blog that I felt many Americans seemed to struggle in their search for more joyous and fulfilled lives. That we want greater understanding of fulfillment in our lives is evident in the $10 billion a year self-improvement industry. People pay big for books, videos, lectures, courses and the like to achieve weight loss, find love, gain self-confidence, etc. Whether someone is happy and seeking to further fan that fire or they are lamenting a hollow and solitary pain within, who doesn’t seek out greater peace and contentment from the world? It is who we are. It is what we do. It’s all we do. Imagine a human wholeheartedly seeking pain and suffering. Those like this do not long survive. No. If we choose to live in this world we must play by its rules, and those rules demand we seek joy. Its achievement is the very meaning of life. Run for your life from anyone who tells you different.

So if joy is in our nature, why should we struggle so in finding the answers to its achievement? There is a simple answer to this question, and I will get to it, but first I wish to address some of the more unremarkable paths we Americans walk in our attempts to discover joy. These dead end paths are crowded indeed. Does anyone know a soul who seeks fulfillment in television, food, video games, sloth, sexual conquest, social media, pornography, drugs, alcohol or like vices? Most of us, myself included, need look no further than a mirror. To be sure, these easy paths can lead to a type of joy, but it is fleeting at best, and false and damaging at worst. Since the joy of these endeavors are short lived, we must repeat them often. Unfortunately, though some of these activities are fine in small doses, over-participation in these pastimes are damaging to real fulfillment. As we squirm in their indulgence, we know instinctively that these paths are shallow and have not the power to strike through to the full reservoir of joy we all sense lies deep within. For certain, we all sit on a treasure.

We tell ourselves things like: ‘I would really be happy if I was thin and athletic’. Or, ‘I would be happy if only I could find the love I’m meant to find’. We tell ourselves: ‘If I only had more money, then I would be truly happy’. Our choice of goals are limitless. We take meaningful steps to achieve our goals. We make healthier eating choices, exercise, maybe take the first steps into forming a business plan, but something always seems to go wrong on the road to hitting our goals. Our wills fade. The fact that we know our wills fade is what gives rise to all the quick-fix answers that self-help gurus peddle. We want to make major life changes overnight or in only a couple weeks time. We’ve become an ‘I-want-everything-I-want-without-any-effort’ culture. This poses a problem, for giving effort is key to our growth and happiness. We don’t need any more gurus telling us to eat vegetables, exercise, save money and work hard. We know all these things. We know the steps to take. Knowing and understanding, however, are two different things. What we need to understand is how to stay strong (effort) when old habits (e.g. T.V. and ice cream) promise the familiar path of comfort. What we need, in a single concept, is mastery of ourselves. Self-mastery is the power to control your thoughts, emotions and actions in the present moment. Horace said: “Rule your mind or it will rule you.” And, Aristotle: “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Self-mastery is the essence of our growth as individuals. I told you already, the answer was simple. What could we not have, if we simply commanded ourselves to it. Each of us needs to get comfortable outside our comfort zones. If you spent all your time doing the things you didn’t want to do, you would have everything you want. Again, it’s simple. The problem is simplicity does not mean easy. Effort is counter-intuitive (much the way exhausting yourself at the gym affords you greater energy). It takes time to achieve self-mastery but, like a muscle, it can grow and strengthen over time. “It took me a lifetime,” said Pablo Picasso. And, when the day comes when you’ve found enough self-mastery that your choices lead you to your goals, you will discover the goals you reached were not the reward you sought, but was instead the self-esteem gained in knowing that you earned your own joy. And, there is no greater joy than the joy of knowing you can trust yourself to make mature decisions and that you are self-made as a result.

Now that we know the why (joy), and we know the how (self-mastery), I wish to tackle the question: who?

The hunt for joy, which has been hailed so eloquently in our American experience as the ‘pursuit of happiness’, and that we wish could be instructed to us by our parents and teachers as simply as the steps of a cookbook (add a pinch of reason and a rounded spoonful of effort, mix thoroughly and bake for 18 years), is not to be found through the guidance of another, but in our own solitary vigilance – in our own individualism. Who ever has had success in pushing another, whether a spouse, child, sibling or friend, to change when they weren’t ready or didn’t really want to? My guess would be no one. Anything worth having must be earned. Nothing given is, likewise, so respected. If there is one axiom that has finally sunk into our minds, it’s that real change comes from within; that no one can change unless they want to change for themselves.

Americans are fortunate to be born to a country that, from its very inception, left individuals free to conduct their own ‘life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.’ Our founding fathers were centuries ahead of today’s self-help movement, and at a time when the rest of the world’s governments held little regard for an individual’s life and even less regard for whether or not that individual was happy. Our founders understood that our human nature is joy, that it could only be found by each of us individually on our own path, and so, they left us free to find it. Tony Robbins and Dr. Phil, step aside, Jefferson, Adams, and Dr. Franklin, were the first self-help gurus. They understood that government needs to stay out of an individual’s way in actualizing the fulfilment of their lives. They understood that small government, which governs least, was the best system to achieve such results, and that so long as each individual respected the rights of other individuals in their pursuit of happiness, they need not interfere. And so, our country grew under such principles, and transformed the world in the process. In little more than a century, these principles ended slavery, lifted women from second-class citizen status and splashed a bounty of wealth and opportunity into our midst.

But, effort…is hard! Effort is counter-intuitive. So, we look for shortcuts. And, none so much among us as politicians and criminals (but I repeat myself) look to provide them! They tell us they can solve our problems. They tell us they can fulfill our needs. Just give them the chance, they’ll change our lives. Obviously, they cannot. As we already know, our fulfillment and happiness can only be achieved from within. The problem is people are willing to believe politicians can deliver their happiness, if it means having to forgo their effort in the matter. It often seems as if some adults miss having a parent to look after them, so they seek one out in government. In this way, they never have to go through the effort of growing up. Politicians have much power to gain for themselves from these people: ‘vote for me and I’ll solve all your problems.’ That they rob these people (and the rest of us in the process) of their struggle is of little concern to them. When we let them take our struggle, we let them take our chance to grow. We cannot grow without challenge. So, we end up less happy than before, then ask for more help, only to discover even less happiness, and the cycle goes round and round. The more assistance a person gets, the more inverse seems their level of happiness. The height of irony is asking the government to fix the problems it caused.

Worse than asking for the governments help in changing you is asking for it to change the behavior of another. If you can’t get your friend to change self-destructive behavior, how do you expect a government bureaucrat to change a stranger for you 1,000 miles away? How well has their war on drugs gone? Their war on poverty? Still, many of you think them capable.

Some people are so averse to the effort it requires to fulfill their own lives, and are so envious of the success of others, that they preach philosophies that ask others to provide their effort to them. These people are called socialists. “It’s society as whole that matters, not the individuals within it,” they say. And so they make government large and create mountains of rules and bureaucracies to stifle the individual’s right to pursue happiness in his own way, because no one can be happy until everyone is happy. All that socialists end up doing is making everyone miserable. (What level of joy have the people of Venezuela? North Korea?) Perhaps, their philosophy might work more effectively if we were ants, or maybe bees. The nature of these species seems to function quite successfully under such hive mentality. The problem is: We are not bees! We are men! Our nature is different. Our happiness and joy can only be found through ourselves in our own individuality. Sure, two people can share their own joys in the presence of each other, but it can only be experienced inside each self.

We must ensure we keep a system in place in our country which allows our nature, as men, to flourish. We need a return to a system of limited government. Our lives are ours to dispose of as we please, not the property of the government. This is the essence of what made our country great. For the first time in the history of the world there was a land where a person was not the property of a king, a nation, a church, or government, to be disposed of for their own goals. Here a man owned himself. His life was his.

Give your own life to the government if you must, but don’t give it mine. You have no right.

I’ve heard a lot of lip service paid over my life to the fact that we must protect the rights of minorities. The smaller the minority, the more protection it needs against the majority. It’s great advice. Fortunately, the smallest minority is the individual. It is the government’s proper function to defend the rights of individuals to pursue their individual happiness against trespassers from both outside our country and within it, but it’s not it’s function to provide that happiness. Only we can do that for ourselves.

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