In the 2006 movie The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith's character, Christopher Gardner, seemed to feel the same way when he said, "It was right then that I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part in there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can actually never have it. No matter what. How did he know that?"
Gardner makes the point that we can pour a lot of energy into our pursuit of happiness, with no assurances we'll ever find it. Most Americans, when asked what makes them happy, will frequently say it's health, relationships, or money. Those answers all have one thing in common - they can disappear in an instant. The healthy man gets cancer. The happy marriage turns into a bitter divorce. The great job becomes an unemployment line. It's true, we've certainly been granted the right to pursue good health, happy relationships, and financial prosperity. But who's out there to guarantee we'll find those things?
The more I ponder Gardner's question, the more I wonder myself - how did Jefferson know to put the pursuit part in there?
So I imagine there's no surprise here: I won't be encouraging our boys to engage in the pursuit of happiness. I'd much rather teach them to pursue something they can control, like gratitude. At least gratitude will guarantee them the chance to be content in any situation, not just the ones generally regarded as happy. And don't be confused, being content is much different than being happy. Some of you may argue that my idea of content is simply giving up on the pursuit of happiness. You may be right. But I'd argue it's a fair tradeoff. How much better is it to learn to be satisfied with everything you have than devoting your life to pursuing everything you want? Things you're not guaranteed to get. Things you're only guessing will make you happy if you do.
Because of all the uncertainty, I find the pursuit of happiness to be a selfish pursuit. I say that out of experience more than anything else. I spent countless years pursuing my own happiness only to find this: Rarely was I happy. Never did I care if anyone else was.
Unlike the pursuit of happiness, though, the pursuit of gratitude is all about "anyone else." Robert Emmons, one of the world's leading experts on gratitude, says the first step to being grateful is recognizing there are sources of goodness that come from outside yourself. That's exactly what happened in those early hours when I held our newborn son. I began to recognize all that had gone into bringing him into this world. Even more, I recognized all that so many people had poured into me over the years that allowed me to appreciate that child and my chance to be his father the way I did. That's when I realized all the years of fruitlessly pursuing my own happiness had blinded me to the people who were standing in front of me that entire time, holding mountains of happiness, just as fruitlessly trying to hand it to me.
Now, because I don't want you to think encouraging our kids to be content is encouraging them to sit still and simply absorb with a smile all the world's tragedies and prejudices, I will tell you that the pursuit of gratitude knows no sitting around. It's a decision. It's hard work. And it has no use for meaningless smiles.
With gratitude, our kids will be encouraged to pursue a vocation that makes them happy. But I will forewarn them when the day comes the job is all paycheck and no happy, it will likely be because they aren't recognizing the goodness in the people they work with, or in the opportunity they have to influence the world around them. It won't be because their job has led them to a dead end in the pursuit of happiness.
I will encourage them to find friends - and dare I say - one day a spouse, that will make them happy. But I'm obligated to warn them, happy relationships change shapes and sizes and sometimes, personalities. Don't be shocked, I'll tell them, when you've filled your world with smiley faces that one day turn up angry and sad and disappointed. Your first instinct will be to re-draw them, but don't, I'll say. It's quite possible it's the way you look at those faces that has changed, not the way they look at you. It's possible you started looking for your own smile in those faces instead of their goodness.
I will tell them when they are saddened by defeat, they probably aren't recognizing the goodness in their opponent. The pursuit of happiness doesn't end in victory, it ends with the realization there is equal goodness - often more - in losing.
I will tell them on the days their pursuit of happiness is derailed by something they don't have, the quickest way to resume the pursuit, spirit renewed, is to take stock of all they do have.
I will tell them by far the greatest threat to the pursuit of happiness is death. Fearing it, seeing it, recalling it. That is why it should always be ignored in favor of counting the blessings in life.
I hope no one thinks I'm opposed to our kids being happy. I'm not. I'm just betting that pursuing gratitude gives them a better chance of finding it than actually pursuing happiness itself. I think gratitude is the fine line that separates the pursuit of happiness and contentment. When our pursuit of happiness is failing, it is likely because we've abandoned the land of being satisfied with what we have, walked up to that fine line of gratitude, and taken up residence on the other side in the midst of the constant reminders of all we desire.
That's why I want our kids to pursue gratitude, not happiness. I do believe they have an inalienable right to do so. And with it, they can be assured that true joy and contentment in their lives will never be destroyed by their desires - including their desire to be happy.
Next time, I'll talk about what our kids can do once they discover the goodness outside themselves.