The US Declaration of Independence asserts that God has given to all human beings (and government must protect), “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

That last phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” has often been misunderstood to suggest that we all have the right to happiness. If so, then I can simply wait passively until someone gives it to me or restores it to me. Good luck with that.

However, the word “pursuit” is pivotal and changes everything. If we have the right to pursue happiness, that suggests activity not passivity, something to be worked for rather than waited for. The thesaurus entry for “pursuit” includes words such as “hunt, quest, seek, track, trail, and going all out.” Sounds like a lot of hard and difficult work, right? Happiness rarely finds us; we have to find it. It doesn’t pursue us; we have to pursue it.

Why is that? Why is happiness so elusive? Why do we have to work so hard to find it and keep it?

1. We have mistaken definitions of happiness. Today, there are thousands of definitions of happiness, maybe millions, and they can’t all be right. If we don’t know what true happiness is, we won’t know where or how to look. If we’re looking for something that doesn’t exist, we ain’t gonna find it! Lots of happiness-hunters are chasing a shadow.

2. We look for happiness in inadequate places. Many try to find happiness in someone or something – a friend, a wife, a husband, a job, a car, a vacation. Some limited happiness can be found in these people, places, and things, but none of them is a sufficient source of deep and lasting happiness. Even the happiest marriage ends eventually.

3. We look for happiness in sinful places. Sin, the transgression of God’s law, promises huge happiness. But never delivers. How can it? How can we find happiness by offending and angering the source of all authentic happiness? Guilty consciences make for grumbly minds and groaning hearts.

4. Other people’s pursuit of happiness crosses ours. There are lots of other happiness-hunters out there, each tracking their hoped-for prey with single-minded and blinkered determination. They don’t really care if they spoil your hunt. They have the scent and they are going after the tantalizing prospect without a thought for your life, your feelings, your interests.

5. We don’t realize just how much hard work is required. We put a few minutes and muscles into it, but when the “effort” produces such pitiful return, we give up. Happiness, though, is such difficult and complicated work that there is now a whole scientific field devoted to it - Positive Psychology. As part of a project I’ve been working on the past year, I’ve read a lot of Positive Psychology books and papers, and what’s struck me most in their findings is just how hard human beings have to work to be happy. It’s a complicated and demanding business.

6. We have leaky ships. Sometimes we look at people who have so much to be happy about and they are just completely miserable. There’s virtually nothing in their lives to make them unhappy and yet you’d think they were living in Belsen. Further inspection reveals that they have punctured their lives with envy and discontent. They are holed below the water line through covetousness and dissatisfaction and are sinking fast.

7. We have gloomy personalities.  While some fortunate people are blessed with a sunny disposition, there are others who are just plain sad. Some of this melancholy can be in the genes and some of it can be learned in our upbringing. These “natural” or “nurtural” disadvantages undermine happiness and make it extra difficult to rise above a default negativity.

8. We experience tough providences. How can I be happy when I have cancer…when my child died of leukemia…when my teen was killed in a car crash…when I have such a disabled child…when I was raped…when my husband cheated on me….? And we can add many more terrible painful providences. It’s a broken and fallen world, and for some of us, it has broken and fallen on top of us, leaving us crushed and sad. Pursuit of happiness? Give me a break.

Many, many reasons why this pursuit is perhaps the hardest hunt we will ever be involved in. So hard, that many have understandably given up. Others haven’t even got to the starting line.

Maybe it’s too hard. Maybe Jefferson & Co. got it wrong. Were they mistaken to make something so basic and inalienable that is so rare and unattainable?

What do you think? Is “the pursuit of happiness” worth the effort? Can we overcome all or any of these obstacles? Are there other impediments I’ve not mentioned? We might as well know what we’re up against.

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  • justmerach

    I think pain / chronic sickness adds something distinct from some other “difficult providences”, as the physical component can be inescapable. With limited relief, there is slim opportunity or counsel for the body/brain to absorb a more balanced perspective.

    In your book on depression, you also mentioned my absolute favourite factor (as a fellow-Scot living in the U.S): sunshine. I see God’s hand very directly in control of this blessing that impacts happiness profoundly in the physical sphere (even for those in chronic pain).

    • David Murray

      You’re right about the impact of pain/chronic sickness and the difficulty of separating the physical from the emotional in that situation. And yes, sunshine is my favorite medicine.