Scott Postma

A blog about the Great Books, the Craft of Writing, and Human Flourishing.

What is the Happy Life?

In Steven Conrad’s 2006 drama, The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner (the protagonist played by Will Smith) lays the thesis of the film at the feet of the viewers when he says,

“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?”

The inspiration for the film is derived from the idea of the American Dream, a term coined by James Truslow Adams, in his book The Epic of America.

Written in 1931, Truslow described The American Dream as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

Never before in the history of the world has such opportunity existed on such a grand scale as it has in the United States. The crafting of a free nation such as this has undoubtedly been one of the most marvelous achievements in human history.

However inspiring and marvelous, the idea of the American Dream as portrayed in Conrad’s film, is itself a modernized view of Jefferson’s famed and eloquent expression, “the pursuit of Happiness.”

The reason he knew to put the part about pursuit in the Declaration is because Jefferson’s use of “Happiness,” actually refers to something the ancients called eudaimonia, a perennial human pursuit remarkably dissimilar to that of Truslow’s and Conrad’s.

This modern version of happiness was already germinating when Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831. Keenly recognizing both the good and the bad that was emerging from the equalized conditions of our newly founded democratic republic, he wrote,

“As conditions are equalized, one finds a great number of individuals not being wealthy enough or powerful enough to exert a great influence over the fates of those like them, have nevertheless acquired or preserved enough enlightenment and goods to be able to be self-sufficient. These owing nothing to anyone, they expect so to speak nothing from anyone; they are in the habit of always considering themselves in isolation, and they willingly fancy that their whole destiny is in their hands.”

Within fifty years of the American revolution, the spirit of rugged independence that won the day had morphed into a subjective self-sufficiency whereby most Americans believed “that their whole destiny is in their hands.”

This spirit continued to sprout during the Second Industrial Revolution following the Civil War, and finally blossomed fully after the Second World War with the introduction of the G.I. Bill and low-interest home mortgages.

Now with a college education and a white picket fence available to virtually anyone who wanted one, it’s hard to imagine why anyone wouldn’t.

Unfortunately, with each generation, this idea of happiness has subtly evolved, and in modernity it reflects an erroneous belief that our founders envisioned a society where its citizens were promised liberty and the pursuit of happiness in a purely subjective form of self-actualization, carte blanche.

Don’t get me wrong, by no means am I attempting to minimize human equality or the individual’s right to pursue success. Who doesn’t love free enterprise, the virtuous pursuit of wealth, and the inspiring story of someone’s sacrifice to achieve their dreams?

But what if real happiness is something different than The American Dream? What if the kind of pursuit portrayed by Will Smith’s character actually distracts people from pursuing what will really make them happy?

Happiness is what Aristotle called a real and final good. It is real because all humans seek it. It is final because it is that for which humans seek all other things.

In other words, we don’t seek happiness to get more money or more success. It’s the other way around. We want to succeed because it will make us happy. We want to gain wealth because we believe it will make us happy.

Happiness is not a means to an end; it is the end.

Imagine for a moment that the pursuit of those things we thought would make us happy only led us on a life-long goose chase where happiness eluded us forever.

What if you got to the end of your life and realized everything you tried to do to bring yourself happiness ultimately failed. Suppose you made millions of dollars, married the person of your dreams, made it to the top of your industry only to find yourself unhappy?

Perhaps, the reason there are so many unhappy people in the freest and wealthiest period in human history is because the modern idea of happiness is not what we should be pursuing.

Seneca, the Roman author, philosopher, and statesman lamented all men wish to live happily, but are dull at perceiving exactly what it is that makes life happy.

According to the ancient Greeks, eudaimonia (the idea Jefferson translated, “pursuit of happiness”), was actually the pursuit of a well-ordered soul.

Only as a result of a well-ordered soul can a person be happy accumulating wealth, cultivating a relationship, or pursuing an art (the equivalent of a career path).

Said another way, the pursuit of happiness has to precede the pursuit of all other things, or else those other things lose their significance and value to us.

Thus, many wealthy and successful people are not happy because they lack a well-ordered soul. Ernest Hemingway is one example of this. David Foster Wallace is another. Likely, you can list a number of people yourself.

So how does a person possess a well-ordered soul?

Well, it’s bigger than a single blog post; that’s why it is called the pursuit of happiness.

But here is a start: the measure of our happiness is always directly proportionate to our capacity to apprehend and appreciate the good, the true, and the beautiful.

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About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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2 Replies

  1. Elizabeth

    How true. Some excellent thoughts! The quote you mentioned from Seneca rings particularly true with me. We don’t know what makes us happy, however well-intentioned we are.

    1. Hi Elizabeth. Thanks for sharing.

      Happiness is definitely not what so many of us tend to think it is when we are younger. Aristotle went so far as to assert it was actually impossible to know if a person lived a happy life until he or she had died. That’s because no matter where we are on the fortune/failure continuum circumstances can always change–and suddenly.

      The unfortunate thing would be to discover too late there is an objective happiness in the apprehension and appreciation of the good, true, and beautiful.