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Chasing Happiness Forever

The American Desire for Happiness and Chasing Happiness Forever:

Why have Americans been chasing happiness forever, and what are the end goals of that pursuit of happiness? Also, what is the definition of happiness? Those are all questions that David Wootton attempts to answer in his “The Impossible Dream” article in Laphams’s Quarterly. America is a society that is obsessed with the loosely defined term “happiness.” In his article, Wootton does an excellent job explaining the philosophical and cultural roots of Americans chasing happiness forever, what happiness is and means, and what the consequences of chasing happiness forever are.

Read Wootton’s “The Impossible Dream” here:

The Cultural Roots of the Pursuit of Happiness:

Wootton begins his article with Thomas Jefferson’s famous introduction to the Declaration of Independence:

 “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.”

I don’t think he could have come up with a better introduction. That Jefferson quotation on rights and in effect, the American dream, shows exactly where the American cultural push for “happiness” comes from: the Declaration of Independence. In other words, Thomas Jefferson and his works are the cultural roots for the current American pursuit of happiness.

According to Wootton, what Jefferson meant by “the pursuit of Happiness” in this quote is that Americans have a right to personal liberty. We have the right to pursue whatever goals, careers, or other paths to success in life and business that we might like. Yes, it is unlikely that everyone will be happy or successful. But, according to Wootton, that is not what Jefferson meant. Instead, Jefferson meant that we all have the right to try to be happy in whatever individual way we might like. Just like I write about in “the Virtue of Capitalism,” Americans have a right to pursue success and happiness in whatever way they might like. Yes, many people will probably be unsuccessful, but Thomas Jefferson knew that good and bad attempts to pursue liberty and happiness should be protected, just as good ideas and bad ideas should be protected by freedom of speech.

Wootton then notes that while Jefferson wanted everyone to have the right to pursue happiness, he knew that some people would always be unhappy and would end up just chasing happiness forever. And we can see that today in the multitude of people with boats, immense wealth, McMansions, and other things that show their material success, but are unhappy. Instead of being happy with what they have, many just want more. It is a never ending cycle that leads to greed and envy rather than happiness and contentment. Wootton thinks that the cause of that is a lack of a definition of happiness in its philosophical roots.

The Philosophical roots of the Pursuit of Happiness:

Up until Thomas Hobbes, happiness was usually just an idea linked to success. In particular, Wootton says that the Greeks and Romans linked happiness to success. They saw the happy man as one that lived up to their societal ideas of manhood. Because those virtues were objective, the Greeks and Romans felt that they could only tell if someone was “happy” after they were dead and buried.

But, Wootton says that Thomas Hobbes changed that understanding. Instead of happiness being linked to objective standards of virtue, it was instead linked to “an accumulation of pleasurable experiences.” Think of the current American view of who should be happy: people with the most things, people who have the most sex, and people who thrive in their careers. That view of happiness and how to pursue it came from Hobbes.

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But, that new philosophy of happiness has two main problems that Wootton identifies. The first is that it is never ending. Instead of being able to reach a point of satisfaction and contentment, people who subscribe wholly to Hobbes’s ideology are in a never ending “rat race” towards wealth and success. There is no end to it. The other problem Wootton identifies is that we cannot separate pleasure from identity. Everything we do, from charity to selfish acts to boost our careers, is part of our never ending quest for happiness. Because there is no objective end to reach, we are stuck chasing happiness forever.

The Definition of Happiness:

Tied in with our modern understanding of the philosophical roots of happiness is the definition of happiness. As I described above, Wootton says that the original definition of happiness was basically success. But not success by any means. To the Greeks and Romans, it was success through virtue because success, virtue, and happiness were all intertwined concepts. No one could truly achieve one of them without achieving all of them.

But then, the definition of happiness shifted as the philosophical underpinnings of happiness shifted. Because Hobbes shifted happiness philosophically to be associated with pleasure and accumulation of pleasure, Wootton says that it then lacked a clear definition other than being a vague term linked to pleasurable experiences.

Luckily, our modern cultural interpretation of happiness has somewhat shifted it back to its original meaning. While pleasure and nice things are still definitely inextricably linked to happiness, Jefferson’s use of it in the Declaration of Independence shows that we also identify it with success and virtue. Additionally, Jefferson’s use of it means that its definition is also linked with liberty. I think the best modern definition of happiness would be “an emotional state caused by both success through honorable or virtuous means and the pleasurable experiences that result from that success.

Wootton describes the definition of happiness as when” pleasure and satisfaction outweigh pain and dissatisfaction.”

The Consequences of Chasing Happiness Forever:

Finally, Wootton describes the consequences of us constantly chasing happiness. Namely, he says that all of our attempts to achieve happiness are self-defeating; because we work so hard to be successful, we die faster, lack meaningful relationships, and have health problems. Furthermore, many people are successful, but can’t realize it because they are too lost in the race for wealth and further success. The accumulation of pleasurable experiences become a never ending goal. Like mythical dragon guarding and increasing its hoard of gold, many Americans are so imbued with their pursuit of riches and success that they never take a moment to reflect on the pleasure that they would experience if they slowed down and appreciated all that they had accomplished and accumulated. That is the negative consequence.

The positive consequence of our new understanding of happiness is that people can be happy during life. During the Classical Age, people could only have been determined to be happy during life once they had died. But now, people who are successful and live good lives can be happy during life. Usually the people that are successful in that endeavor are not the ones that are chasing happiness forever. Instead, they are the ones that take time to reflect on the good things in life.

My Thoughts about Wootton’s Article and the Pursuit of Happiness:

I would highly recommend that you read “The Impossible Dream.” Wootton’s article is a great way to understand the meaning of happiness and its roots. Additionally, while he doesn’t describe how to be happy, I think he leaves clues.

Based on the article, I think the key to being happy is to set goals and then achieve them while remaining virtuous. The part of the Classical, pre-Hobbes understanding of happiness that I agree with is that virtue, success, and happiness are all linked. The best example of that might be the investing world. Yes, I know the importance of saving and investing. I even wrote and article about it titled “The Importance of Investing.” But, look at all the sleazy investors that are unhappy in life. Men like Jordan Belfort who achieved success without virtue. They are deeply unhappy people, and Belfort admits as much in his great book The Way of the Wolf. While at Stratton Oakmont, he wasn’t truly happy or fulfilled because he was being sleazy.

Many other Americans experience the same thing; their career is by all accounts successful, but because they lack virtue they don’t feel happy. I think the best way to achieve happiness is through religion and Stoicism; two things that I am very disappointed that Wootton didn’t write about. Religion gives people the sense of the greater good and a moral path that they so desperately need. I am a Christian because I believe in it, but it also has various beneficial aspects. Especially in the realm of character improvement and a sense of the greater good. Stoicism gives people the guideposts and goals that they need to turn their material success into personal contentment, thus leading to happiness. If you are interested in that, you should read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and subscribe to the Daily Stoic newsletter (buy Meditations here: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius). Both will help give you a better understanding of stoicism and how to be happy.

While I wish Wootton had discussed how religion and Stoicism can help people overcome the depression and lack of happiness brought about by materialism and our current understanding of happiness, I thought that overall it was a very good article and is one that I would definitely recommend reading. Especially the part on how Thomas Jefferson thought happiness and liberty are linked. That is crucial for Americans to understand as they continue chasing happiness forever.


The Impossible Dream:

The Virtue of Capitalism:

Good Ideas and Bad Ideas are protected by the 1st Amendment:

Read about Jordan Belfort here:

Buy Belfort’s book, The Way of the Wolf, here, on amazon:

Subscribe to The Daily Stoic here: The Daily Stoic

Buy Meditations here, on Amazon: Meditations

Read my review of The History of the US during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson, a great book about Jefferson that will help you understand his views on happiness:

And buy that book here:

The Importance of Saving and Investing: