The Pursuit of Happiness

“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.” – Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence

Everyone enjoys being happy. It’s a wonderful, positive feeling. We like it so much, Thomas Jefferson wrote it into America’s Declaration of Independence as a basic right we have to pursue. I find myself thinking about this right every 4th of July.

This weekend, I thought that not enough credit is given to feeling unhappy. We dislike how it feels, and we should dislike it. It’s meant to be unpleasant. Unhappiness motivates change. When we feel dissatisfied, we are more likely to ask why and seek solutions.

We can address unhappiness in two basic ways: negatively or positively. Since we regard being unhappy as a negative emotion, we may be tempted to respond to it negatively. This can cause us to shout, fight, or become unruly when we have a target we can blame for our unhappiness. It can cause us to engage in unproductive or self-destructive behaviors, like eating a carton of ice cream or sleeping all day. The usual result of responding negatively to our own unhappiness is the creation of more negative emotions in us and others.

If we choose instead to view our unhappiness in a positive way, as a motivator for self-growth and change, we can use it constructively to improve our lives and the world around us. This takes practice. It is not a natural instinct to respond to a perceived negative situation in a positive way. It takes a willingness on our part to look inside and honestly assess what led us to this point, and how we can change ourselves or our circumstances to eliminate the source of our unhappiness long-term.

Addressing unhappiness in positive ways can be practiced using both small and far-reaching methods. For instance, we can acknowledge that staying up late makes us grumpy in the morning. Rather than dosing ourselves with caffeine that makes us edgy each morning, we could instead choose to organize our lives better so we go to sleep earlier and get the rest we need. The second approach takes more work, but yields more positive results and makes our lives more enjoyable overall because it addresses the true source of our unhappiness.

Some cities in America have recently passed laws making it more difficult for homeless people to live there. They’ve made it illegal to feed the homeless, provide other forms of assistance, or give spaces where the homeless can rest. I imagine the lawmakers did this because the issue of homeless made them unhappy on some level, and their solution was to remove the problem from their lives by creating these negative laws.

A positive solution is the one that the state of Utah has employed: provide homes for the homeless. They realized that it costs less money to help the homeless than it does to prosecute them, and helping them addresses the fundamental problem at hand – they didn’t want homeless people in their state. The solution was not the negative one other places have chosen recently – to drive the homeless out –   but rather the positive solution of ending homelessness.

Seeking positive solutions is initially the harder choice to make. It takes more foresight and planning. Yet the benefits of doing so outweigh the time spent. Solve the problem that caused the unhappiness originally, and you eliminate the unhappiness in your life. I intend to do this going forward in my life, and I want to encourage others to take this approach as well.

How much positive change might we create in the world if we choose to address our unhappiness in a positive way? Let’s try it and see. We have the right to pursue happiness, so let’s do it in the best way we can.

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