The pursuit of happiness

December 27, 2007 | 6 comments

In the process of sending out Christmas cards I always think about the people whose names are in my address book. I wonder what they’re up to, how they’re doing, and hope all is well for them. As I did this a few weeks ago, I noticed as I came across the names of our parents’ friends that so many of them have had a rough time in the past decade or so. Divorce, mid-life crises and general restlessness seem to be epidemic among the baby boomers and those born around the same time. It seems that so many people we know from that generation express a vague dissatisfaction with their lives, a feeling that somehow things should be different, should be better, and they don’t know where it all went wrong.

Recently I noticed in some forwarded email chains that more than one of our parents’ friends have the same signature on their email. As I read it, I thought that it was a good summary of the baby boomer outlook on life. And I think it’s a good summary of what’s gone wrong. It said:

Life is short: Break the rules. Kiss slowly. Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably. And never regret anything that made you smile.

This motto of sorts seems to be based on the view that it’s healthy and good — if not the very meaning of life — to pursue happiness. Our culture takes it for granted that the pursuit of happiness is a worthy and important goal. I always believed that too. But having observed the fruits of that worldview in my parents’ generation, and having lived most of my life that way myself, I’ve come to believe that it ultimately leads to misery.

That last line, “never regret anything that made you smile, ” brings to mind so many examples of just where this worldview leads us astray. Sure, I smiled when I held my newborn baby or when I got married. But I also smiled that time I told a joke at another person’s expense that got big laughs; I smiled when a dangerously unhealthy diet plan allowed me to be considered attractive by society’s standards but left me at a weight that was clinically anorexic; I smiled when I heard that something bad happened to someone I really disliked. All of these things made me happy. None of them brought me peace.

I’ve come to believe that when we chase happiness, what we really want is peace.

It’s interesting to observe how the pursuit of happiness is lauded more and more as our society becomes less and less religious. From my experience, I think that that’s because it’s impossible to be at peace while denying the soul, so pursuing happiness is the only choice we have. Peace does not — cannot — come from what is found in the material world alone. From a viewpoint in which the observable material world is all there is, humans should be mentally tranquil, in a state of harmonious equilibrium, at things like the deaths of those whose genes are less than perfect, or the demise of others and their resource-consuming offspring. Yet, oddly, what lead people to inner harmony, to peace, are counterintuitive things like self-sacrifice, detachment from our appetites, and trust that there is something more to life than what meets the eye.

Inner peace requires acknowledgment that there is something transcendent about human life — not necessarily Christianity, but some sort of tapping into the rule system from wherever it is that our souls originate. It requires religion. Which is why I think that as we’ve cast off religion we’ve had to also cast off the pursuit of peace, of inner tranquility, and settle for the cheaper substitute, the pursuit of happiness.

And when we follow only that which makes us happy, it can so easily lead us astray, leaving us chasing fleeting pleasures and hollow passions that lead to anything but happiness in the long term. From my experience, ironically, when we give up trying to find happiness and start trying to find peace is when we actually achieve true happiness. From the little saying above, things like kissing, loving, laughing can be wonderful things — but without those mysterious rules of the soul to reign them in — without the litmus test of whether or not they put the soul at peace — we can find ourselves looking back on our lives and finding that where it all went wrong started with something that originally made us happy.


  1. La gallina

    Sometimes I think you can read my mind. I agree with you completely. I have found complete peace in my life after deciding to follow God’s plan. If I had continured to do things my way, the “fun” way, I never would have discovered how full of joy life can be. There is something monumental about self sacrifice and surrender and “letting go and letting God” that is deeply satifsying.

  2. Adoro te Devote

    I really wish you’d been in my Spiriuality class…the prof spent a great deal of time discussing the concept of “happiness”, and thus, the definition of happiness. What the world calls “happiness” is empty; conversion involves a re-definition of happiness, which you have experienced.

    The things that used to make us happy don’t any longer, because we’ve come to recognize trash for what it is. God has such a beautiful, perfect and loving definition of happiness that people are seriously nuts not to follow it…but, again..that’s conversion.

    Great post. 🙂

    If I can find any awesome quotes about the definition of happiness, I’ll come back and post them for all. 🙂 Or write a post myself, thanks to your wonderful inspiration.

    (OK, seriously…if you’re at all interested, you have GOT to apply for the grad program I’m in, and I believe they have a cohort in Dallas, among other places.)

  3. Terri

    My family and I just got back from a cruise a couple of weeks ago. We really enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help but wonder how many people on that boat were there pursuing happiness in an effort to fill an empty void and would return home still empty and unfulfilled.

    This is a great post. You really have profound spiritual insight.

  4. dontbesad

    Peace be upon you,

    “I’ve come to believe that when we chase happiness, what we really want is peace.”

    How eloquently put. I really enjoyed reading your post; it spoke to me.

    I’ve some New Year reflections on my blog, please to come by sometime, I think you might consider them interesting.

    Kind regards,

    Don’t be sad

  5. Anonymous

    For further understanding of what went wrong with the Baby Boomers, I very highly recommend the book In the Country of the Young by John W. Aldridge. Written in 1969 about people who were then in their teens and early twenties, it is startlingly insightful, not only about how “The Young” came to be the way they were then, but also (when you think about it from the perspective of today) about the things they’ve done since and the way our culture has changed as they’ve become the ruling adults…without ever letting go of being Young.

  6. JimmyV

    Lovely post, Jen. You expertly describe my life before my re-evangelization.

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