The Pursuit of Happiness

Last week I took the train down to New York for its first ever Circular City Week. In the whirlwind 24 hours that followed, I was introduced to cutting-edge approaches to building design and creation, drank coffee from the “next-gen cup” you may soon see at every Starbucks, looked out over Midtown Manhattan from the Finnish Consulate, received a crash course in the current state of drinking straw innovation, reconnected with incredible friends… and got hit upside the head by a couple of profound realizations.

More on some of that to come.

Right now, I want to offer one of the realizations I took away from listening at Circular City Week. It was brought on, as many things are, by something that someone else said somewhat casually. That something (heavily paraphrased) was that:

“The words ‘pursuit of happiness’ are perhaps the most dangerous words in our Constitution, because they position happiness as something elusive and far off – something to be chased and perhaps never captured.”

Makes sense, right? America has a reputation as a nation of striving, hustling, seeking and becoming – one that, frankly, is well-deserved. Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of “the American Dream” than those words in our Constitution. If you’re like me, you’ve always thought of the pursuit of happiness as something positive and aspirational. 

Now, it calls to mind a quote attributed to James Oppenheim:

The fool seeks happiness in the distance. The wise grows it beneath his feet.
— James Oppenheim

We ought to be wary anytime happiness, fulfillment, or meaning is promised by our acquisition of, or participation in, something manufactured and held separate from ourselves. 

It is a simple yet profound message – that we each stand in a place where the conditions required for our happiness are present to us, if only we practice love and gratitude for what we have and who we are lucky enough to share our lives with. Every moment of every day carries the potential for radical beauty, self-discovery, and epiphany.

I could go further, and connect this realization to economic development, capitalism, advertising and our consumer culture – but I won’t. Because that would be me reaching to add meaning to a message that is inherently meaningful, and because growing happiness beneath our feet means finding it in the here and now, not finding someone to blame for its absence.