Joy in Sorrow: The Pursuit of Happiness

This is a copy of my term paper for Early American Lit. Please do not steal any ideas but feel free to extrapolate.

John Perry Barlow, in his essay entitled “The Pursuit of Emptiness,” put forth that Thomas Jefferson’s inclusion of the pursuit of happiness in a list of inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence has turned into a counter-intuitive requirement of American life. In Barlow’s opinion, pursuing happiness is a primary way to ensure that one can never be truly happy. He states that when he is happy, it is not because he pursued happiness, but rather, that he allowed happiness to pursue him. In Barlow’s words, “Jefferson’s wistful aspiration has gradually transmuted into first an entitlement and eventually an obligation, even as its actual practice has become increasingly rare.” Barlow believes that this pursuit is unworthy of Jefferson and unnatural for humans, no matter how “American” the ideal may be.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson calls for Americans to pursue happiness. Barlow puts forward a philosophical viewpoint echoed throughout history. John Stuart Mill, in his autobiography, wrote, “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so (Mill).” Why do we, as Americans, feel the need to pursue happiness? As Crevecoeur writes, “Here [in America], the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labor; his labor is founded on the basis of nature, self interest; can it want a stronger allurement?” This self-interest drives a capitalistic economy. Adam Smith’s invisible hand can provide insight into why the idea of pursuing happiness was and still is such an alluring concept. Put in simplest of terms, being greedy and wanting more improves economy despite. Taking the concept of happiness and applying the same logic to the term, by pursuing happiness, would we not find more happiness than if we were to ignore the concept altogether and simply live our lives in melancholy?
Jefferson certainly believed so at the time of writing the Declaration, and Americans seem to take Jefferson at his word. Barlow, however, questions the validity of applying this political and economic viewpoint to human behavior. “Why, when I am happy, am I happy? Never because I pursued happiness but rather because I let it pursue me. To me, the more you ignore happiness, the more it will come looking.” The invisible hand does nothing for our overall sense of well-being, and given current research on the matter, this assertion does not come as a surprise. In another article appearing in Forbes magazine (Herper), Matthew Herper writes on recent psychological research that found that happiness has a biological foundation. In the article, Herper, borrowing from Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, writes that a “loss” in biology can mean death for a creature, yet a “success” offers a minor bolstering of spirits, if it helps at all. The rich get richer and the happy get happier, but the poor and sad suffer endlessly.

Circular reasoning aside, how would one go about trying to become happier? Not by seeking it, Barlow claims, and Puritan writings that form the earliest written American history would agree. Anne Bradstreet’s three poems concerning the loss of her grandchildren reveal an interesting hardiness in how the Puritans viewed happiness. In her poem, “In Memory of Anne Bradstreet”, the second of these poems, she writes that despite the great loss her family has experienced, “Was ever stable joy yet found below? Or perfect bliss without mixture of woe? …More fool then I to look on that was lent, as if mine own, when thus impermanent.” She finishes the poem with the words “my throbbing heart’s cheered up with this: Thou with thy Savior art in endless bliss.” In her eyes, and in the eyes of many of the Puritans, happiness was not an internal emotion, nor a product of the external, but rather, was a gift from God so that man could cope with the “mixture of woe” that stems from the sense of loss and from our imperfect sense of society and self. Despite enduring one of the hardest experiences one can endure, Bradstreet finds joy in her loss, as all of these children are now with God, and can experience true happiness. This trait, being able to find joy in sorrow and sorrow in joy, reflects on the emptiness felt by those who actively pursue happiness. In seeking an external source of joy, a cause and justification of our emotions, we actually cheapen our ability to see what lies not just directly in front of our eyes, but down the road we have chosen. We become blind when seeking internal happiness, that we abandon our ability to see the details of how our environment affects our mood. In seeking happiness, in any form, we grow to realize how difficult it is to be happy, and become despondent should any negative emotion contrary to our quest for more joy appear. We are unable to be happy, because when we spend so long and tried so hard to do so, we lose the comprehension that eternal happiness is a concept not conceivable by any man.

If the Puritans believed happiness does not come from within nor from without, but instead from above, and if as Barlow and Mill claim, the pursuit of happiness leaves man miserable, why would Jefferson utilize this phrase in the Declaration? Jefferson himself denied any pursuit of happiness to the slaves he owned until his death, and despite writing that “all men are created equal,” denied equality to those whose labor sustained his own wealth. And in American pre-civil war society, equality only extended to white, male landowners. Jefferson himself did not see African Americans as equivalent to whites, but instead felt a patriarchal superiority in his race’s dominance over what he termed the “other race” (Jefferson, Notes). Yet still, Jefferson forwards the idealistic over the realistic, believing that while not perfect, Americans were the most perfect of contemporary society.

Walt Whitman seemingly took Jefferson’s words to heart. In his “Song of Myself,” he writes “My knowledge my live parts, it keeping tally with the meaning of all things; Happiness, (which whoever hears me let him or her set out in search of this day.)” Whitman claims that the meaning of all things, the meaning of life essentially, is happiness, and begs his readers to search for it. These words are similar to the pursuit of happiness employed throughout the Declaration. Further, in section fifty of the same poem, Whitman writes of something inside of him, something that even a poet cannot fully define through any “dictionary, utterance, or symbol.” “It is not chaos or death – it is form, union, plan – it is eternal life – it is Happiness” These two comments, side by side, display a contradiction in Whitman’s description of happiness. In the first, he writes that all who read his work should actively seek happiness, yet proceeds to tell the audience in the second that they will not find it anywhere save inside of themselves. In essence, he writes of the difficulty of finding happiness, but proceeds to state, in broad terms, that only those who seek inside are capable of discovering more than an unattainable abstract. Even though the word itself might be found in a dictionary, happiness, in practice, cannot be achieved by reading about it, but only through the path of seeking.

Barlow, though, states that only through allowing happiness to seek the person rather than actively seeking it, can anyone be truly happy. It may seem that this would serve as rebuttal to Whitman’s assertion to seek happiness, but upon further analysis, this assertion begins to fall apart. To Whitman, his audience should seek happiness while simultaneously understanding that the destination is not where it is found. Rather, it is the journey where happiness will find the seeker. Whitman, though, proposes that a seeker of happiness can indeed find such, and this runs counter to Barlow’s belief that happiness must be abandoned as a goal in order to truly be found.

An analysis of American happiness cannot be separated with any sense of dignity from a study of American slavery. From the eyes of modern Americans, the “self-evident truth” that all men are created equal, joined with the stated belief in unalienable rights, was the greatest hypocrisy put forward by the founders of our country in regards to slavery. African Americans suffered under the greatest of atrocities to their being, and despite the humility displayed among our founding fathers in their legal separation from the British crown, it is difficult to claim blacks were not separated from the rights supposedly thrust upon all men at the time of their creation. However, to one of the most influential abolitionist writers, Frederick Douglass, the Constitution never once sanctioned slavery. The American government was an anti-slave government, practiced during a period of time where the complete abolition of slavery was a political and sociological impossibility. The framers were forced to work within the bounds of what all of the states could agree upon (Spalding). Douglass’ view of happiness as felt by those held in slavery is bleak, but through the negative, he instills a sense of the positive. In his essay entitled “The Destiny of Colored Americans,” Douglass states that “The white man’s happiness cannot be purchased by the black man’s misery,” concluding that “It is evident that the white and black must fall or flourish together.” In “Narrative of the Life,” Douglass once again touches on the subject of happiness with a dissenting opinion on Slave Songs than held by contemporary whites. “I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” This comment, seemingly an argument for the melancholy of the bound, actually displays the most accurate picture yet on happiness in general and the search for happiness in particular. The slaves, driven more by a lack of happiness than an excess of sorrow, sing to relieve themselves of their plight, as one would shed tears for their sorrow. In this, they were seeking escape from their condition. In this, they were not seeking happiness. And despite Douglass’ assertion that Slave Songs were only used to combat melancholy, the strength displayed of his fellow slaves gives Douglass strength, and through that strength comes a will to survive similarly seen in Puritan writings.

Douglass might hold a well justified opinion of the sorrow of slavery, just as Barlow might hold a well justified opinion of the ineffectiveness of anti-depressants to instill happiness. But both of these comments disregard the happiness that can be found in knowledge of overcoming difficult circumstance. Anti-depressants will not make one happy, but by “fleeing suicide” as Barlow puts forward, one has become capable of continuing to live. Slave songs, as described by Douglass, may not have been a sign of contentedness among slaves, but in the knowledge that through the simplest act of defiance, he and other slaves survived despite the harshness with which they are treated. Through survival comes strength, and through a knowledge of one’s own strength, happiness is not an unattainable goal.

In not seeking happiness but fleeing sorrow, slaves were more likely to understand happiness then their white masters. This assertion should not discount their suffering, nor the prejudice felt by their station, but rather, displays that through awareness of these plights, they were more capable of comprehending true happiness when they found it, compared to white’s who actively strove to become happy, much as modern society proclaims is the right of Americans. For an African American slave, happiness may have been harder to come across, but, once found, was more likely to be enjoyed, extended, and comprehended by all involved. Further, by the strength of family ties, they had come across the only way to discover happiness in the face of barbarity; community. Only through community could a slave not be overcome by his status as inferior as interpreted by contemporary society.

Friends and family might seem a cliché definition of happiness to modern Americans, who feel thus ordained by God and Jefferson to pursue their happiness, but when all convenience, when all humanity, when all dignity has been stripped away, only the community remains to assist a man in retaining his sanity. Happiness might be hard to find in such a situation, as it might be hard to find in modern times, but neither is impossible and both seem worthy aspirations. But by seeking this happiness, by attempting to force the round peg into the square hole that is our lives, we allow it to be drowned out by modern technology and a sense of entitlement, as well as a belief that contemporary life should be easy. As Barlow states, we cannot seek happiness, for, by the very act of attempting to observe emotion as it flows through our psyche, we have changed its form and ensured that it will flee before we are able to quantify and classify it. Only by accepting our sorrow alongside our joy and by not getting bound in a fruitless task on seeking to define the indefinable can we truly enjoy not just our joy, but our sorrow as well. By allowing happiness to seek us, as Barlow and Mill claimed, we might not observe the exact point happiness began to dominate our emotions, but we can revel and flourish in our pleasure, rather than drive it from our minds by constantly looking and longing for the next distraction.


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