Is The Pursuit Of Happiness Making Us Miserable?

One of our favorite writers and observers of the human condition was John Perry Barlow. Here is his missive, “The Pursuit of Emptiness” originally published in Forbes:

The Pursuit of Emptiness: Why Americans Have Never Been A Happy Bunch

Forbes ASAP, 12.03.01

Happiness is the absence of striving for happiness.
-Chuang-tzu (369-286 B.C.)

Extolling the pursuit of happiness was a toxic stupidity entirely unworthy of my greatest American hero, Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, the pursuit is a poison that sickens our culture. I wish he’d never said it.

It produces a monstrous, insatiable hunger inside our national psyche that encourages us to ravenously devour the resources of this small planet, crushing liberties, snuffing lives, feeling ourselves ordained by God and Jefferson to do whatever is necessary to make us happy.

During the year 2000, while feeding at the greatest economic pig trough the world has ever slopped forth, Americans ate $10.2 billion worth of Prozac and other antidepressants (up 19.5% from the previous year). Better living through chemistry? I don’t think so. I have never heard any of my friends and acquaintances who have become citizens of the Prozac Nation claim that these drugs bring them any closer to actual happiness. Rather, they murmur with listless gratitude that antidepressants have pulled them back from the Abyss. They are not pursuing happiness; they are fleeing suicide.

Not until I turned 30 did it become apparent that my wariness of the pursuit of happiness might be a subtle form of treason. Like many of my generation, I hadn’t expected to live to such an age. I really didn’t trust anyone over 30, and remain reluctant to do so even now. But since I was about to become an adult, I figured I ought to take a stab at graceful adulthood.

So I spent the night before my 30th birthday composing a list called “Principles of Adult Behavior.” Most of my self-directed advice consisted of such platitudes as Polonius liked to lay on Hamlet–stuff like “Expand your sense of the possible” and “Tolerate ambiguity.”

But there was a patch in the middle of this earnest document that nearly every American who read it bottomed out on. And that was No. 15, which stated: “Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.”

Despite the safely Puritan kicker, this homily pissed off the broadest range of folks you can imagine. Whether hippie, cowboy, redneck, or debutante, practically everyone who read it thought there was something threateningly wrong with it. It was downright un-American. Why?

Because nearly everyone in this country feels the weird, invisible pressure to pursue happiness; they feel that secret shame of not trying hard enough to attain it. To have someone tell them they should just stop trying felt like a threat to an oath they’d taken. In other words, Jefferson’s wistful aspiration has gradually transmuted into first an entitlement and eventually an obligation, even as its actual practice has become increasingly rare. Listen carefully for the sound of spontaneous laughter in America’s public places. Observe random American faces for the sight of a smile. You will be alarmed, I think, at how infrequently we are illuminated by such natural human light. And yet, behind these grim masks, there continues to reside the guilty belief that happiness is ordained by Jefferson (and possibly God) to be our duty.

Ask an American how he’s doing, even in these times of pandemic chaos and fear, and he will instinctively reply, “Fine.”

Yeah, right.

Let me be clear. I like happiness. Hell, I think I am happy most of the time. And why, when I’m happy, am I happy? Never because I pursued happiness but rather because I let it pursue me. To me, the more you ignore happiness, the more it will come looking. Swami Satchidananda of India put it better: “If you run after things, nothing will come to you. Let things run after you. The sea never sends an invitation to the rivers. That’s why they run to the sea. The sea is content. It doesn’t want anything. That’s the secret in life.”

In Africa, the Zulu have a word, ubunto, which is often translated to mean community, but I’ve heard a more accurate definition: “I am because we are; we are because I am.” In other words, happiness is not a solitary endeavor; it’s a joint enterprise, something that can only be created by the whole. I am happy because we are happy. Contentment arises from a sense of family, community, and connectedness.

Such virtues are in dwindling supply in America. Close to half of first marriages end in divorce. The war between children and parents has never been uglier. We ridiculously imagine that America Online and the local mall are communities. And to the extent that we are connected at all, it is largely by mass media like television, which, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, “allows thousands of people to laugh at the same joke and still remain alone.”

Do we Americans lack this sense of connectedness because of our affluence? Does wealth induce loneliness? I don’t think so. But to address the problem, we first have to admit that it exists. This will not be easy. Many of us are convinced that our sorrows are a sign of personal deficiency. Thinking that we are alone in our politically incorrect despair only drives us deeper into personal isolation.

But more to the point, we need to rethink some of the basic assumptions of the industrial economy. Chief among these is the idea that there is a natural division between our lives and our livelihoods. The first thing we learn in school is that it’s supposed to suck. Learning is work, and we fully expect that the work we do in later life will make us equally miserable. We render unto Caesar for eight dreary hours every day, during which we expect not to be ourselves but rather interchangeable machine parts in some great industrial engine.

This doesn’t have to be the case. I was a cattle rancher for 17 years, during which there was no discernable division between my life and my work. It was cold, arduous, and involved constant contact with actual bullshit, but I loved it. Following my realization that ranching had become a lifestyle that only the already wealthy could afford, I turned to thinking for a living. This is also hard, and there is plenty of bullshit involved, but I can only do it as myself. Yet most organizations still require their “knowledge workers” to be as self-alienated as lathe operators. There was a glimmer of hope in the dot-com startups, but these have either failed or become big enough to assume the isolating social practices of their industrial predecessors.

Better still, there has never in history been such an abundance of young people who have already experienced the futility of wealth. They spent a couple of years pursuing IPOs that would “release” them to a lifetime of starlet-chasing on the Riviera. Now many of them are more dedicated to making a difference than to making a dollar.

Which brings me to another solace still available to us. Consider the joys of service. As a few leaders, ranging from Jimmy Carter to the Dalai Lama, demonstrate, we can become happy through the exercise of compassion. But following the training we receive in schools and workplaces, we have come to regard service as a self-suppressing obligation rather than a self-fulfilling responsibility. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Perhaps, in the wake of the September 11 massacre, this is changing. Now, hundreds of thousands have experienced the obscure delight of donating blood. Millions more are finding, in the presence of such loss and terror, what really matters. Love can thrive in the presence of fear. As a society, we are well positioned to both love and accept love.

All this doesn’t mean that happiness can only be found through connectedness. You can find happiness when you are alone. Sometimes I think of something Kafka–that noted happiness-hound–wrote:

 It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.

Kafka is not talking about the pursuit of happiness. He’s not even talking, as one might easily and incorrectly conclude, about lying in wait for happiness. He’s talking about making yourself genuinely available to it. Opening yourself to the little things: the sunrises, the lilac-scented breezes, the hilarious bartender jokes, the inside straights, the large purring cats, the click of stiletto heels, the very granular texture of unsolicited joy.

Worry. Be happy. But remember that happiness is a gift you owe yourself. It is not an obligation you owe to Jefferson, the United States, or God Itself.

John Perry Barlow is a retired Wyoming cattle rancher, Grateful Dead lyricist, and cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. His last essay for Forbes ASAP was “Surfing the Fence Line” in Big Issue II: @ Work.


The Five Stages Of Financial Security

Conventional wisdom suggests that while money can’t buy happiness per se,  it stands in the way of a lot of peoples’ ability to be happy.

Is there a way to understand how money plays a role in making us happy or unhappy?  Is there a minimum amount we need to be happy?  Or is that formula more nebulous and complex?

This is the GoldenRule system of money and happiness…

So many of us are fixated on providing for our material needs.  And many do believe that the key to being successful, happy, stress-free, etc., is making a lot of money.  Western culture basically gauges a person’s value on their monetary net worth.

But is this fair?

Do you really need x amount of money to be happy?

If money plays a role, how much is “enough?”

I’m going to examine this by breaking down the concept of “financial success” into five basis stages.  What’s interesting is, these stages aren’t about a specific amount of money.  They are about the role money, or lack-thereof plays in your personal financial success and independence.     Where do you fit on the scale?

Level One:  True Poverty

People who cannot provide the most basic needs (food & shelter) for themselves or their family without outside assistance are at financial level one.

Level Two:  Barely Providing

The next level are those who can afford to provide their basic needs: food, shelter, clothing, and some very basic necessities like transportation.  Their income allows them to be slightly stable and take care of themselves.   But they do not have any “disposable income” to spend on anything superfluous.   And their basic needs and utilities are modest.  People at level two have vehicles, but they’re nothing special, just transportation.

Level Three:  Living With Comfortable Choices

The third level of financial independence is when you’re making enough to provide for your basic needs, with “disposable income” to some degree whereby you can put money into “non-essential” items like a new car, or pursue various hobbies and interests.

Levels 1-3 are what are called the “debt phases.”  These people often have a negative net worth, being more in debt than the value of their assets.  (Although ironically, many people at the lowest poverty level may not have enough credit to get in debt and could have a positive net worth).   Levels 1-3 are typically the scenarios where the lack of money exerts the most stress, and puts the most limitations on peoples’ happiness.

Level Four: Positive Net Worth

The forth level of financial independence is where people begin to actually become technically “financially independent.”  When their assets are greater than their liabilities, and their debt load is relatively marginal.  Level Four, however, doesn’t mean people are truly “debt free.”   People at this level can have a positive net worth, but still have debts, mortgages, student loans, etc., but lack the liquidity to nullify all their debt without selling off assets such as real estate.

Ironically, even at level 4, people are still vulnerable to unforeseen events, disasters, medical issues, accidents, etc., that can render them in even worse financial shape.

Level Five: True Financial Independence

When you have a positive net worth, and the only reason you’re carrying debt is for tax purposes, and you have the cash/liquidity to eliminate any debt on demand, you are truly financially independent.  This also means you have enough of a nest egg or savings to pad you from unforeseen situations.

Financial Independence Is Not About Money – It’s About Debt

You’ll notice that nowhere is there an actual monetary amount listed on these five stages.  Because actual financial success and independence has less to do with a certain amount of money, as it does debt.  The degree to which a person is in debt is the real source of stress and money problems.  Because of this, it’s possible for people at virtually any income level to be at any level from 1 to 5.   And because of this, the adage, “Money can’t buy happiness” is actually true.   You can be a multi-billionaire and still be miserable and financially strapped.  Or you can be a simple wage earner, who has a modest lifestyle, that lives a much more joyful and stress-free life.  It all depends on debt and the circumstances you put yourself in.

With this in mind, remember that, at any point in your life, it is possible to achieve Financial Security.  LIke other realizations, such as the idea that happiness is more a state of mind than a position, you have the tools at your disposal to begin making your life more secure and rewarding. 

Here are some tips for being where you want to be:

  • Maintain An Economically Realistic Lifestyle – This is probably the hardest part of achieving financial security.  Because no matter how rich you are, the capitalist-based system in which we live, thrives on convincing you that there’s something better, more expensive and “more rewarding” that you should yearn for.     This is of course, an illusion, but it’s a principal component of what makes consumer societies function.  Be aware that you are surrounded by forces daily that seek to diminish your sense of self-worth and self-confidence if you don’t acquire what they’re selling.  This relates to every end of the financial spectrum, from the idea of what you should eat on a daily basis, to which neighborhood in which you must live.  Be aware that these influences don’t exist to help you.  They exist to sell stuff.
  • Avoid Debt Wherever Possible – Look at borrowing money as inviting an unwelcome guest into your home.  You do not want this person in your life that much.. only when absolutely necessary.  Like toxic people, debt can infect relationships and diminish the quality of your life and reduce the number of choices you have to achieve other goals.  Use debt only as a necessary, last resort.  Never go into debt to purchase anything that isn’t required to maintain an “economically realistic lifestyle.”   Especially avoid credit card debt.  If you would feel embarrassed asking friends and family for money for certain things, don’t charge them yourself.
  • Embrace Simplicity – Ask yourself how much do you really need?  There’s a popular tv show on NetFlix featuring a Japanese woman who helps people rid their lives of clutter, and she often asks people, “Does it spark joy?”  Does an item really make you feel good?  If not, ask yourself if you really need it?  The less you have, the less tethered you may feel.
  • Reinforce New Behaviors – I used to love soda, despite knowing that the highly refined sugars were not good for my health.  I decided to avoid sugary sodas.  At first it was difficult… I grew to crave the taste of sugar.  But after awhile my tastes were modified and I began to enjoy unsweetened drinks even more.  I changed my behavior pattern and my tastes.  This is much easier to do than you think.   Like quitting smoking, sometimes a bad behavior is tied to another behavior (like drinking coffee) and you may have to stop both to curb one, before going back to coffee.  Be aware that you can do it, and after even a month or two, you won’t miss it at all, and you’ll be living a healthier lifestyle.  You can do the same thing with habits that involve unnecessary spending.