I think we try too hard. After all, it’s imprinted in the U.S. Declaration of Independence: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But even before the pandemic, it seemed the whole world was depressed. Is that because we’re trying to attain an illusion, wanting what we think everyone else has?
In the 2000 movie, “28 Days,” there is a scene that struck a chord when I watched it the first time, and over two decades later, I still remember it:
Gwen: Maybe there is something wrong with me.
Jasper: Is that what they’re telling you?
Gwen: Yea, it is, and you know what? I think they’re right.
Jasper: Well, they’re not. Trust me. You’re just in a rut. It happens to everyone.
Gwen: No, there’s an entire world of people out there of people who do everything right. They live right. They don’t drink. They don’t do drugs, and they are happy.
Jasper: They’re not happy. No one adult human being is happy. People are born. They have a limited amount of time going around thinking life is dandy, but then inevitably tragedy strikes, and they realize life equals loss. The whole point of the game is to minimize the pain coming from that equation. Some people do it by having kids or making money or taking up coin collecting. And others do it by getting wasted, having that little switch in the head. Turn the hot light off and the cool light on.
Gwen: Nobody gets hurt collecting coins.
Jasper: Everybody hurts everybody. It’s the human condition.
I understand why people suffer from addiction, including food addiction, then recover and believe deeply they have found their truth, only to face demons again. During the recovery stage, we display a happy face to flaunt our success at discovering the secret and achieving the goal, perhaps to fool others or ourselves. The faithful believe our happy faces and want the same. It’s self-perpetuating. Happy faces in the media and in person serve as an impetus to a vicious cycle. We believe they found the solution, and we will find it too if we follow their lead. Sometimes we chase people who promise pursuit of happiness while they happily pursue our wallets.
Tom Papa did a great comedy stand-up named “We Are the Fattest Generation” in which he talked about eating sugar because we’re human. He said that you get sad, and to stop yourself from slitting your own throat, you eat a cookie. Of course, the problem arises when you eat more than one. But the point, as Jasper said, is that we’re trying to minimize the pain. In other words, we pursue happiness even if it’s only for the moment we savor the cookie.
According to the Columbian College of Arts & Sciences, Thomas Jefferson suggested the phrase “pursuit of happiness” to replace John Locke’s proposal of “property” in the Declaration of Independence. There is a lot written about what Jefferson actually had in mind. According to this particular article, the intended reference was civic virtues like courage, moderation and justice. “The pursuit of happiness, therefore, is not merely a matter of achieving inividual pleasure.” The article points out that Jefferson’s literal property “included about two hundred human beings whom he did not permit to pursue their own happiness.”
I think Gwen and Jasper are both right and both wrong. Of course, Gwen’s drinking was not the solution. But neither is pursuit of happiness. Maybe we would be better off accepting our frustration as part of the unbalanced equation of life and loss. Feeling a void and periodic moments of sadness does not mean you failed your mission to be as happy as you think everyone else is. It’s simply the human condiiton. If we stop trying so hard, maybe we won’t be drawn to every cookie that beckons.