The foundational document of the United States of America identifies life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as inalienable rights, and holds this to be a self-evident truth. The pursuit of happiness is an age-old goal of human life at the core of Western philosophy going back to Socrates, as well as much religious practice. But I believe it a truth we understand poorly.
I spend a lot of time talking and writing about happiness and about how easy it is for us to mistakenly aim at the wrong target. Just last night I was delighted to have the opportunity of talking to a group of sixth- and seventh-grade kids at Or Hadash, one of my favorite synagogues, and we spent a lot of time on precisely this topic.
I had been invited to talk to the World Religions class, led by the delightful and very wonderful Rachel Jenks, about Buddhism. But as is always the case with a conversational approach to a presentation, the discussion found its own way into topics of interest to the audience. So my chatty discourse on the Four Noble Truths and the nature of suffering – one of the more enjoyable and engaged I’ve ever given! – drifted into shopping and brands and their relationship with happiness (which of course is central to Busshism).
Whether it is the latest iphone or a pair of UGGs, the desire to purchase something new and cool can be the beginning of the slippery slope. We think we want these for ourselves, but as one astute member of the group observed, much of the reason is often that we want others to think we are cool. So we compound the problem of defining our happiness by owning stuff with caring too much what others think of us. And of course, if we start with the UGGS, then we want the Nikes and the Reeboks and whatever new shoes show up as being cool next year. And we want more and newer and ever more expensive shoes as the previously-new-shoes start to age and wear out.
American consumer society trains us to identify our happiness with owning stuff, having a comfortable life, and with being cool. But I don’t think this is what the founding fathers had in mind with the opening of the Declaration of Independence.
The World Religions class last night also talked last night about our relationship with other people. In a deep sense we know that happiness comes from being loved. Whole libraries of psychology text books have been written about the things we will do to earn the love of our parents, and the distortions such behaviors make to our innate personalities. But what is not written about so much is the extent to which happiness is derived not by being loved, but by loving.
Think about it for a minute.
Think about a mother with her child. Think about friends and lovers. Think about the times when you have truly been happy. I don’t mean those times when you have accomplished something important or impressive, when you got the great job or closed on buying the big house, times when you can easily be self-satisfied or proud. I mean, rather, those times when you were truly, deeply happy, when you experienced real joy. I suspect these moments are at times when you have connected intimately with another person in love. It might have been a lover, a parent or a child. It might have been an experience you have had working with the hungry or the homeless or in hospice. It might have been anything, ecept that I am confident, if you look honestly at yourself and your life, you will find that your deepest happiness exists in relationships with others, and more specifically in relationships were you are extending your love.
I have come to believe that the single most important inalienable human right, the right that underpins the pursuit of happiness is the right to love. This is a right that cannot ever be taken away from us, but it is one that we can all too easily lose sight of and instead get caught up in the pursuit of a lifestyle that can only, ultimately, leave us yearning.
I am very excited about “A New Business Mindset,” a project that includes writings, courses, presentations and a podcast/radio show. If you’d like to learn more about this project and find out how to get involved, visit the “A New Business Mindset” page of my website or sign up for the mailing list