In America one of our most famous phrases is "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". It is, in a way, a national motto. We've heard it more times than we can count, but have we ever really stopped to think about what it means? Those who are into quotes like I am are probably very familiar with the Nathaniel Hawthorne quote above. For me, it's the first thing to come to mind when I think about the concept of pursuing happiness. It's a pretty well-known quote about happiness, but, as brilliant as Hawthorne might be, I have to say that I don't entirely agree with what he's saying in the quote. What he's saying is that happiness is a butterfly, a beautiful something that is separate from us, a fleeting something we have to chase or wait for. I, on the other hand, believe this:
We are the butterflies. We are happiness.
As much as we, in America, talk about the pursuit of happiness, I think it would do us some good to realize that happiness is not something external that we must constantly chase or wait for. Happiness is within us and it is up to us to bring that emotion to the forefront of our consciousness and embrace a happy life. Hawthorne's quote -- and the whole idea of the relationships between life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- got me thinking. If, as I believe, happiness is within us, what does it mean to pursue it? How can you pursue what you already possess? And why is it that we must pursue happiness, but freedom and life are givens? Shouldn't happiness be a given as well, especially because it's even easier to come by than freedom?
I love this country. I do. I say this having never b een to another country so I have nothing to compare it to, but, I have, for the most part, everything I need. I have food and shelter and love. I have safety and free speech and rights. I have a lot of things I take for granted all the time that many, many other countries lack (paved roads, cable, non-violent elections, mini-skirts, running water, vaccines, a safe place to sleep, and the list goes on and on...). I have all of the things I should and could need to have a happy, free life. So why, for the majority of my life, has happiness been so hard to come by? Because happiness is not something I should have been pursuing. Happiness is something I should have been -- and finally am - cultivating within myself. There are people from other countries, countries where poverty is running rampant and where basic necessities are scarce, that have lived happier lives that I have. Happiness is a state of mind. It is not a flirty butterfly to be chased.
Having given a lot of thought to happiness lately -- and in honor of the birth of my great country, America -- I'd like to spend some time today thinking about the pursuit of happiness and how it relates to life and liberty (two things I'm blessed with but take for granted all the time). What could be a better way to celebrate the 4th of July than to think about what happiness, life, and liberty me for me, an American girl? Let's dive in, shall we?
Life & Happiness
I think that life and happiness should go hand-in-hand. I believe that everyone -- regardless of who or where or when they are -- has a right to be happy. While we're guaranteed life (at least from the point we're born until the point we die), we are not necessarily guaranteed happiness. In fact, it is so not a guarantee that America's Declaration of Independence doesn't state that happiness is a right. What is a right is the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration of Independence 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." What if instead it read simply "Life, Liberty, and Happiness"? Would that be different, if happiness, rather than the pursuit of it, were a right? I think it would.
I think that happiness is something that, while it's mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, isn't really made a focus in the country, at least not in the right way. Happiness is sold here, for sure, but it's not taught. And, believe me, it needs to be. Some people -- like myself -- aren't born thinking everything is oh-so-sunny and wonderful. It's taken a lot of hard work to realize that I can be happy, that happiness is a choice I have to make every day. I think about what my life up until this point would have been like had I known that. I wonder what I would have experienced had I known that I could truly make the choice to be happy -- and that no thing, person, or situation was ever going to make that choice for me...Sometimes it makes me sad to think of the time I've wasted being gloomy and miserable, but then I realize that I'm lucky to have found the happiness in my own life. I'm lucky to have discovered, before it is much, much too late, that happiness is a part of my life that I can control.
When it comes to life and happiness it's easy to think we know what a "happy" life is. But do we? I think of all of the very, very wealthy people in America and I wonder how happy they are. Is the most famous, successful, beautiful, wealthy person in America happier than the poorest, dirtiest, sickest citizen of a war-torn, impoverished country? If I had to guess, I'd say that this is something we can't know for sure. Happiness, if you didn't hear this from me already, comes from within. I've said it countless times but I cannot say it enough. Every second of our lives we have a choice: to be happy or to be unhappy. I'll admit that it's not always easy. There are some god-awful days when it doesn't seem like happiness is a choice, but, really, it is. Life, if you want it to be, can be all about happiness. And I'm not just talking about the pursuit of it either. I'm talking about real, lasting, actual happiness. If you have a choice, would you rather be the butterfly of happiness or would you rather be the one waiting for that happiness to find you? Personally, I'm going to be the butterfly. I'm going to be the happiness in my life.
Liberty & Happiness
Is happiness free? Considering that it comes from inside of us, it better be free. We can't very well pay ourselves to be happy now can we? I believe that happiness is free. It's not something you can buy. It's not something you can get from someone else (though happy acts and words can be contagious). It's something that's within you. And that means it's free. You can have happiness any time you want. You don't need money. You don't need approval. You can have it anytime, anywhere, and in any form. That's the amazing thing about it! (At same time, be aware that this works for unhappiness as well...a fact I know all too well from all of the wonderful, perfect days I spent being unhappy when I had not logical reason to be in a state of misery.) The most beautiful thing about happiness and the fact that it's free is that you don't necessarily need to live in a place of freedom to have it. Happiness can be your freedom.
Of course, you're thinking, that's easy for a girl who has lived a free country for her entire life to say! And you're right to think that. You're right to think that because I've lived a very privileged life in a very privileged country that it's easy for me to think that happiness is a freedom that is possible without actual tangible freedom. I like to think that if I were imprisoned in a country void of personal liberties that I would still have the choice to be happy. Would I actually be happy? I don't know. Probably not. But I would like to think that I could be. Take, for example, Anne Frank. The other day, on her site The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin posted this quote from Anne Frank: The Diary of a Yong Girl:
"On the contrary, beauty remains, even in misfortune.
If you just look for it, you discover more and more happiness and regain your balance.
A person's who's happy will make others happy;
a person who has courage and faith will never die in misery!"
March 16, 1944
Is that not inspiring? If you look for happiness you find more and more of it an regain your balance, Anne says. I don't think words could be more true. I have spend years being unhappy (and for no good reason, having never experienced some of the terrifying experiences that little Anne was faced with!), and I have chosen to make the most of life. I have freely chosen to look for happiness. No one told me to do this (okay, maybe people did tell me to be happy but I never really listened to their words because I was too content thinking of myself as a tortured, miserable, creative type). No one forced me to read books on happiness or start a blog focusing on the positive. I made the choice to do this. I chose to look for happiness and -- lucky me! -- I found it. It seems to me that Anne -- even in the difficult situation she was in -- did the same. She didn't have The Geography of Bliss or The How of Happiness. She didn't have Eckhart Tolle or Deepak Chopra. All she had was herself, and though her freedoms were limited in so many ways, she chose happiness.
Freedom is a gift. Like many gifts I've received, it's something that I love but also take for granted. I don't have any concept of what it was like to be Anne Frank. I don't have any idea what it feels like to be living in a country, as some are right now, where freedom is only a figment of one's imagination. What I do have is the notion that I can be grateful, right now, for life, liberty, and happiness I have right now. What I can do is be grateful that I've finally discovered that happiness is free, happiness is living, and happiness is something I can have right this moment. I don't have to chase the butterfly. I don't have to wait for the butterfly. I am the butterfly -- living, free, and happy.
What does "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" mean to you?
What do you think about Hawthorne's quote? Are you chasing a butterfly?