The Pursuit of Happiness

The Declaration of Independence includes the line: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. “Shouldn’t the USA be the happiest country in the world since the pursuit of happiness is enshrined by our founding fathers”

As I write this from sunny Florida, I did a Google search of the happiest countries in the world. The northern cold countries always make everyone’s top 10 list and the USA is conspicuously always a no-show. Finland is on the top of most lists followed by other Scandinavian countries then Iceland and Canada. I have visited all the places on the list and I don’t get it.

A couple of years ago I spent June 21st; the first day of summer in Reykjavik, Iceland. It was daylight for about 23 hours and at 2 am downtown was teeming with people, mothers pushing baby carriages, and young people having a party in the street. It was surreal and amazing.

What about the first day of winter though, when the daylight hours are just the opposite? These happy countries have one thing in common, they are all rainy half the year and snowy and dark the other half of the year.

Happiness was on my mind when I attended a 75th wedding anniversary, and as I looked at the “happy” couple who were both over the age of 90, I was amazed and impressed that anyone could reach this milestone . Their children and grandchildren spoke at length about how their marriage was utterly happy and always loving.

So I got up the courage to ask my friend’s grandmother a serious question about her prolonged marriage and the answer was surprising. When I asked if her long marriage had been a happy one, she responded- “You know, I never really thought about it.”

What irony right? The current generation that relentlessly pursues happiness, never seems to attain it.

This is the central theme in Ruth Whippman’s book – “How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.” The author quotes a study from the University of California, Berkeley that concludes that “paradoxically, the more people valued happiness as a separate life goal, the less happy they were.”

Yet the pursuit of happiness notwithstanding, the plague of the 21st century is depression. The World Health Organization reported that worldwide depression rates from 1990 to 2015 have seen a whopping 50% increase. Another study indicates that the depression rate among American youth has risen more than 60 % between 2009-2017. During this time frame, juvenile suicide attempts have also soared, resulting in a steep increase in the need and usage of antidepressants.

In my younger days, we pursued happiness not by chasing it, but by following our dreams. Legendary guitarist Frank Zappa, who died in 1994, was an astute social critic of my generation and a nonconformist musician. When asked if the jazz era was over, he replied: “Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny.” He summed up his radical social views with: “If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television…you deserve it.”

Henry David Thoreau the American essayist, poet and philosopher wrote, “Happiness is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it eludes you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it comes and sits softly on your shoulder.”

So it appears that happiness can’t be found by chasing it, it is naturally infused in our very beings as we go about living our life. Happiness is not a transient emotion or a destination to pursue or travel to, it is a “state of being “.

The more a person lives life in sync with one’s values and family and community the more happiness will find that individual. Happiness can not be a destination, it is part of the journey of life itself. And maybe the fine people of Finland and other happy citizens have transformed happiness into a character trait that is part of their life. It is this permanent quality that they take along with them into the long, snowy, dark winter months.

When we were younger we believed as Zappa concluded that those who live a conservative, conformist life are dooming themselves to misery. As we grew and matured we realized that there is no single prescription for happiness or preventing suicide.

About the Author: Jake Tewel holds a Masters Degree from YU, a wine seller, caterer and a million miler for the past 15 years. Jake is a best friend, great neighbor, your go to travel person, father, grandfather and loving husband. He is now focusing his efforts on heart healthy nutrition, exercise and travel.

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