There is little doubt that most, if not all, are glad to be done with the difficulty that was 2020. A global pandemic, financial crisis, unemployment, and political uncertainty made it a year where angst, anger, depression, and worry seemed to take center stage. With all that was, 2021 brings with it hope for something new, an about-face from what we knew, and hope that this year will be different.
As I watched the New Years’ Eve celebrations with friends and family, much different than those from years past, I was struck by one response to the question of “what do you want in 2021?” The response was one word . . . happiness.
While many of us may hope for the same thing in our New Year, we would do well to understand one thing. We do not have to hope for happiness. It is there for us if we choose to take hold of it.
Happiness is one of those things that we are obsessed with. We write songs about it, make movies about the pursuit of it, we wish for it, wait for our jobs or significant others to bring it to us. All of us want to be happy, yet for so many, it seems elusive. It does not have to be this way.
In June of 2014, Laura Douglas Brown interviewed Professor Brent Strawn of Emory University’s Candler School of Theology about “the pursuit of happiness”. The following three questions and answers provide tremendous insight and may just change our thinking about how we view happiness.
LDB: The Declaration of Independence guarantees the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What do you think the phrase “pursuit of happiness” means to most people who hear it today?
BS: I think most people think “pursuit” in that phrase means “chasing happiness” — as in the phrase “in hot pursuit.” This would mean that “the pursuit of happiness” has to do with “seeking it” or “going after it” somehow.
LDB: How does this differ from what our nation’s founders meant when the Declaration of Independence was written?
BS: It differs a lot! Arthur Schlesinger should be credited with pointing out in a nice little essay in 1964 that at the time of the Declaration’s composition, “the pursuit of happiness” did not mean chasing or seeking it, but actually practicing happiness, the experience of happiness — not just chasing it but actually catching it, you might say.
This is demonstrated by documents that are contemporary with the Declaration, but also by the Declaration itself, in the continuation of the same sentence that contains “the pursuit of happiness” phrase. The continuation speaks of affecting people’s safety and happiness. But the clearest explanation might be the Virginia Convention’s Declaration of Rights, which dates to June 12, 1776, just a few weeks before July 4. The Virginia Declaration actually speaks of the “pursuing and obtaining” of happiness.
This is a game-changer! If our Founding Fathers intended us to practice happiness why don’t more of us do so? The simple answer is we choose not to.
At the beginning of last year, I had a chance to travel to Uganda with my wife. For the last number of years, she has traveled back and forth with a non-profit that focuses on the education and long-term sustainability of single mothers and widows in one of the poorest regions of Uganda.
While there, I had many opportunities to visit with these women and hear their stories which included loss, war, kidnappings, and abuse. In addition to hearing their stories of hardship, I learned these women also did not have what we as westerners take for granted. Many lived without running water or electricity. They had built their homes themselves from mud bricks and thatched grass for their roof. They had to farm in order to eat and for most, eating was a luxury that was not always a guarantee. However, there in the middle of incredible pain and horror, in the center of a lack of creature comforts was immense joy and happiness. Every village we entered greeted us with hugs and smiles. We were told how much we were loved. Their generosity and hospitality were truly humbling.
When speaking with several of the women from one of the villages I asked about this happiness that poured out of them. The response was the same from person to person and confirmed my belief. They said, “We choose to be happy; despite what life has thrown our way.”
This posture and way of living are echoed in the research done by Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage when he states, “If you observe people around you, you’ll find most individuals follow a formula that has been subtly or not so subtly taught to them by their schools, their company, their parents or society. That is: If you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy. This pattern of belief explains what most often motivates us in life. We think: If I just get that raise, or hit that next sales target, I’ll be happy . . . Success first, happiness second.” He continues, “if success causes happiness, then every employee who gets a promotion, every student who receives an acceptance letter, everyone who has ever accomplished a goal of any kind should be happy. But with each victory, our goalposts of success keep getting pushed further and further out, so that happiness gets pushed over the horizon.”
As we begin a New Year with new hopes, renewed expectations, and a desire for something better, may we stop looking for things, events, and people to make us happy. May we even stop hoping for and chasing happiness. May we instead choose it and live it and in so doing make 2021 a great year!