The pursuit of happiness is the American (and now the world) ideal. It’s written like a natural law into our Declaration of Independence. But perhaps we missed the point right at the beginning. By turning happiness into a pursuit, instead of a state of being, we’ve set ourselves up for always wanting more, which is the modern epidemic many of our youth suffer from. There’s no limit, no top, no point where anything is enough. In a world where slick marketing builds instant desire (and then changes those desires a year later), where teams of scientists engineer perfect nacho chips that hit our “bliss” center just enough to leave us in a state of craving (can anybody say, ‘cool ranch’), where there’s never a shortage of bigger and better to compare with, it is important to encourage our young people to think about what really makes them happy. “The Pursuit of Happiness” is Tall Trees Grow Deep’s latest contemplation activity. It’s a chance for kids (and adults) to compare the future with the past. When was I happy in the past? What do I think will make me happy in the future? Do those two stories match up? Or am I pursuing the wrong thing?
I believe we must teach our children (and remind ourselves) that often what makes us happy is very different from what our consumer culture says will make us happy. When I watch a BMW commercial, I can’t not feel the rush, the excitement. For a split second, I want one. Who wouldn’t? But I have a working car. And when I really think about it, driving has never made me very happy. So why would I want a BMW? “The Pursuit of Happiness” is a simple exercise to guide us all to a better understanding of what is worth pursing. Logic implies that what has made us happy before will make us happy again. So why do we forget this? My happiest moments are actually very simple. Hikes with my kids. Fun, creative projects I’m working on. A night out with friends. Live music at a corner bar (not a stadium). A worthwhile goal accomplished. Beach days. Yummy dinners with my wife. Volunteering. A good cup of coffee and a book. A great movie. These are all fairly cheap, basic activities. With young people, it’s very similar. Ask most teens about their happiest moments, and they’ll talk about hanging out with friends, helping others, good music, a hard-earned accomplishment, being with family. All these wonderful, simple things. Ask them what they want in the future, and often you’ll get a list of expensive accessories and toys, giant homes, fancy cars, new clothing, success, recognition, fame.
The great irony, of course, is that sometimes this future version of happiness gets in the way of those things that actually make us happy. If I work a double shift, I can get the car and the house–and never take a walk in the woods again. We trade in what has made us happy in the past for a consuming career, a big house, and all the responsibilities that come with it. The point is not, of course, to judge. If you love your job and you want to do it for eighty hours a week, go for it. Engaging work makes people happy. The happiest rich people I know started out as happy poor people doing what they loved. And yeah, if a million dropped into my lap, maybe I’d get the BMW. Why not? It’s a beautiful car created by passionate people doing what they love. Being rich is not a crime, nor is having nice things. The point is to not get fooled into someone else’s happiness. Find your own. And reflecting on your past a little, on those moments when you felt most alive, are a good guide for where you want to put your energy in the future. It’s a great way to make decisions. Has this made me happy before? No? So why am I doing it again?
Another insight I try to guide my students and kids toward, is the realization that when we cling to happiness, it disappears. I recently spent a wonderful week with my family on a pristine lake in the north woods. We did not own the property, and we were lucky to be there. But I had a few interesting moments where I noticed myself losing my enjoyment of the moment because of fear that it was going to end. I began to create a story in my head of how I could make the moment last. I imagined buying my own property, which, of course would put me under a lot of financial strain and open a box of responsibilities I don’t want. But I wanted the happiness to last, and that desire was getting in the way of the wonderful moment.
“The Pursuit of Happiness” contemplation was created for young adults, but I think adults can benefit. I now use what I learned to plan for big and small things in my own future. One example of a discovery I made about myself: As a musician, I love live music. But I finally realized that it never makes me happy to spend a ton of money on tickets to a big concert, just to be crammed into a sweaty room or a giant stadium, usually with my face in someone’s armpit, in order to hear a song I already know. Yet for years I felt some internal pressure to drop money I didn’t have on big shows I did not enjoy. What makes me happy is going to small (cheap) clubs or free outdoor shows to hear new, interesting music. Now I know better. I can see a little clearer what will make me happy and what won’t.
The Pursuit of Happiness. Does your pursuit of happiness match up with your history? Take a moment to find out. Use this simple activity to help your kids and students reflect on what is worth pursing in life. Share with any teachers or parents you think could benefit. And let me know what you think.
Now if I could just stop thinking about that BMW.
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