We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
“In the pursuit of happiness” is probably one of the most perplexing Thomas Jefferson phrases. Even more confusing when combined with “life” and “liberty” in the Declaration of Independence.
In previous blog posts I have suggested that joy and happiness are not synonymous. Regardless of what the dictionary states.
Happiness: a superficial and momentary giddiness caused by a temporal sensation. A warm glow after attaining physical pleasure. Opening a bag full of money. Receiving a compliment. Winning a game.
Helping people be superficially happy does not require much service. Gifts, smiles, hugs, and unexpected expressions of admiration meet the goal.
Teachers are told students will be happy when given positive reinforcements. When they correctly answer questions and comply with instructions.
Positive reinforcement is supposed to make students feel better about themselves. Resulting in good academic performance. If the student feels the compliment is authentic and respects the teacher’s opinion.
But it never results in lasting happiness or joy. It is too manipulative. It does not engage students intellectually or emotionally. It is only a booster to stimulus-response.
Among adults, the constant pursuance of temporal happiness is addiction to warm fuzzies. Defining “life” as the “liberty” to continually pursue something that brings fleeting comfort. What feels good now.
Is that what Jefferson meant? I hope not. Although millions of Americans may believe that interpretation.
When I was a teenager my life away from school was based on a fascination with machinery. Especially motorcycles. A good life meant seated on a fast motorcycle. The liberty to go anywhere to make me momentarily happy. In the desert and mountains around Phoenix.
I often felt free and unhindered. Exploring regions unknown to me. Sitting atop vistas with a warm wind in my face and an amazing landscape below. My imagination could go wild. That kind of life and liberty seemed an everlasting source of happiness.
Unfortunately, some fellow students found different kinds of life, liberty, and happiness. Alcohol, drugs, and questionable forms of behavior were popular pursuits. Those who indulged felt just as free as I. But often paid a heavy price.
In time, I realized my freedoms during those years were not enough. Life, liberty, and happiness could better be associated with exploring new worlds and ideas. Meeting different people. Accepting and mastering new challenges. Becoming more complete than sitting on a motorcycle seat.
Not so true with many of my friends. We lived in a free country. Even unlawful behaviors could be accepted as teenage mischievousness. A rite of growing up.
Which opened to even greater freedoms and indulgences in adulthood.
The era in which I grew up, as positive as it was, contained interesting stereotypes. Rebel Without a Cause was depicted teenage angst and rebelliousness. It seemed like an American rite of passage. Which morphed into a psychedelic revolution with dramatic opposition movements. The Vietnam conflict and military draft. What many considered unwarranted restrictions on their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
While society around me seemed to unravel in the 1960s and beyond, I finished college. Participated in military activities not associated with Vietnam. Married and taught school. A motorcycle-based aimlessness was not for me. Finding ways to provide service was a better direction.
But some considered my kind of service as too straightlaced. Uptight.
I began to believe that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness had boundaries. Not rigid boundaries. But within a framework of long-term meaning and life-affirming principles.
My kind of service was channeled into the field of education. Specifically, into a search for what makes human beings intrigued with curiosity and reasons for existence. The meaning of life. How we should use the liberty we have been given as American citizens.
That little nugget in my brain might have been influenced by my father.
Dad talked about the qualities of a good spouse, so I followed his advice to the letter. It turned out to be a great suggestion!
He also said I was deficient as a carpenter or mechanic. I should consider other pursuits. A little disappointing, but I got over it.
He held a mediocre understanding of how to achieve any kind of elevated status in American society. He did not live in those circles. And did not have that kind of ambition.
But Dad was always messing around with the “what ifs” of life. Curious about everything. He could not explain where that intense curiosity came from. He was raised in New York, a state full of 19th and early 20th Century inventors. Some at Cornell University, near his birthplace.
In his later years Dad discovered entrepreneurship. He researched how retired people could serve society. Instead of sitting on park benches or playing shuffleboard and bridge. He wrote articles and gave speeches. Counseled retirees in ways they could dig up buried dreams, then act on them.
The Maricopa County Area Agency on Aging liked Dad’s ideas and sponsored his services. He motivated me to start a gerontology studies program at Emporia State University in Kansas where I had become a professor.
Dad showed through example how to serve the goals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In the context of real meaning. His organization, Retirement Achievements, gave him some level of joy through serving. Unfortunately muted, then lost with his advancing dementia later in life.
But that legacy gives me joy and the inspiration to tell Dad’s story. My family’s story—and mine.
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