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The Pursuit of Happiness

It comes in two versions, positive and negative, but it’s still the same question. I just want to be happy. I’m just not happy. Both convey a lack of satisfaction with the way my life is turning out. They also reveal an important underlying assumption that I should be happy, that being happy indicates that my life is going well.

In a recent interview with Brett McKay on The Art of Manliness podcast about his new book The Depths, The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic , Dr. Jonathan Rottenberg notes that over the last 30 years more and more people have set as a goal that I am going to be very happy. He comments that “at no time in human history have so many people tried to deliver a state of reliable euphoria.” The conclusion Dr. Rottenberg draws in his book and discusses in this interview is that this goal of being very happy most of the time contributes significantly to the current epidemic of depression.

Dr. Rottenberg also makes the observation that evolution does not select for happiness instead placing emphasis on survival and reproduction. I would agree that most of life is taken up with making my way in the world and happiness is an occasional by-product, a moment along the way to enjoy and savor but too fleeting to make the object or goal of my life.

Years ago, when I actually had an office that people would actually walk by, I would post pithy sayings or quotes that I aspired to outside my door under my nameplate. I also developed some of my own, like this one:

“Happiness as the object of pursuit is notoriously elusive, but joy as the result of obedience is inevitable.”

The origins of this are several but one is a recorded talk I listened to numerous times by a speaker at a retreat whose name I can sadly no longer recall. The point of his talk was that we cannot always be the best or finish first but we can always show up and do our best. He drew from the example of Gabrielle Andersen-Scheiss’ heart wrenching finish in the inaugural women’s marathon at the 1984 Olympics. She entered the stadium some 20 minutes after the first place finisher and took an agonizing 5 min. 44 sec. to finish the final 400 meter lap, finally staggering over the finish line in 37th place.

The take-away for me was that succeed or fail, I can always show up and do the right thing for the right reason. I can always do my best. What I have discovered since then is that when I do, when I am obedient and faithful, I experience joy and the satisfaction of knowing I have done my best. Sometimes I feel happy but mostly I feel satisfaction and confidence and peace.

Another quote that spent time outside my office door is from C.S. Lewis on The Law of First and Second Things: “Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: Every preference of a small good to a great, or a partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made. Apparently the world is made that way . . . you can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first. From which it would follow that the question, ‘What things are first?’ is of concern not only to philosophers but to everyone.”

The Art of Manliness podcast can be found on iTunes, Dr. Jonathan Rottenberg interview is episode #113.

Video of Gabrielle Andersen-Scheiss:

An interview of Gabrielle Andersen-Scheiss:

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