2501) Trying to Be Happy

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Harold Kushner (1935), When All You Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, 1986, pages 22, 23…59:

     America’s Declaration of Independence guarantees every one of us the right to the pursuit of happiness.  But because the Declaration is a political document and not a religious one, it does not warn us of the frustrations of trying to exercise that right. The pursuit of happiness is the wrong goal.  

     You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness.  You become happy by living a life that means something.  The happiest people you know are probably not the richest or most famous, and probably not the ones who work hardest at being happy by reading the articles and buying the books and latching on to the latest fads.  I suspect that the happiest people you know are the ones who work at being kind, helpful, and reliable—and then happiness sneaks into their lives while they are busy doing those things.

     You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness.  It is always a by-product, never a primary goal.  Happiness is a butterfly—the more you chase it, the more it flies away from you and hides.   But stop chasing it, put away your net and busy yourself with other, more productive things than the pursuit of personal happiness, and it will sneak upon you from behind and perch on your shoulder….

     There is nothing wrong with being successful.  Churches, colleges, museums, and medical research all depend on the generosity of successful people sharing the fruits of their success with them.  There is nothing wrong with having enough power to influence events.  On the contrary, people who feel powerless and frustrated are more dangerous to society than people who know the effect of their influence and can use it wisely, because they may do desperate things to compel us to take them seriously.  But there is something very wrong with the single-minded pursuit of wealth and power in a way which shuts us off from other people.  It may put us in a position where the only thing worse than losing is winning.

     There are many books that will teach how to “look out for number one.”  They suggest that it is a brutal, competitive world out there, and the only way to get ahead is ruthlessly to take advantage of other people’s weaknesses.  My objection to those books is not just that I disagree with their morality.  I do, but why should anybody be impressed by that?  My objection to the “looking out for number one” philosophy is that it does not work.  It will not make you happy. Take advantage of other people, use people, be suspicious of everyone, and you are liable to be so successful that you will end up far ahead of everyone else, looking down on them with scorn.  And then where will you be?  You will be all alone, and not happy.


I have observed that when any of us embarks on the pursuit of happiness for ourselves, it eludes us.  Often I have asked myself why.  It must be because happiness comes to us only as a dividend.  When we become absorbed in something demanding and worthwhile above and beyond ourselves, happiness seems to be there as a by-product of the self-giving.  That should not be a startling truth, yet I am surprised at how few people understand and accept it.  Have we made a god of happiness?

–Catherine Marshall, A Closer Walk


“I don’t trust happiness.  Never did, never will.”  Mac Sledge in the 1983 movie Tender Mercies.


The fountain of contentment must spring up in the mind, and he who has so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own attitudes and disposition will waste his life in fruitless efforts, and multiply the griefs which he wishes to remove.

–Samuel Johnson                          


Never mind happiness.  Do your duty.  –Will Durant


Happiness is the only thing in the world we can give without having.


Most people pursue happiness with such breathtaking haste that they hurry past it.

–Soren Kierkegaard


To pursue happiness is to lose it.  The only way to get it is to follow steadily the path of duty, without thinking of happiness; and then, like sheep, it comes most surely, unsought.  — Andrew McLaren


Who is the happiest of all?  The one who values the merits of others, and in their pleasure takes joy, even as though it were his own. 



We know that the man who sets himself to capture happiness by storm is foredoomed to failure, and that genuine happiness comes as a byproduct of self-forgetfulness.  Precisely because he could not see beyond trying to “get a lot out of life,” the author of Ecclesiastes was finally driven to a hatred of life (see verses below).

–Dave Roberts in The Grandeur and Misery of Man


This lamentable phrase, ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as an inalienable right, is responsible for a good part of the ills and miseries of the modern world.  To pursue happiness as a conscious aim is the surest way to miss it altogether, as is only too evident in countries like Sweden and America, where happiness is most ardently pursued, and the material conditions thought to be most conducive to happiness are all in place, and yet despair abounds.

–Malcolm Muggeridge, pages 179-180, Jesus Rediscovered


I can say that I never knew what joy was until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die to my selfish desires.  For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus…  In light of contemporary attitudes, it must seem extraordinary that so much joy can come from Jesus’ seemingly harsh commands, whereas the return to pagan permissiveness has spread such a dreadful gloom and boredom over the Western World.

–Malcolm Muggeridge, p. 123, Jesus


Ecclesiastes 2:1-11  —  So, I said to myself, “Come now, I will test myself with pleasure to find out what is good.”  But that also proved to be meaningless.  “Laughter,” I said, “is madness.  And what does pleasure accomplish?”  I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom.  I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.  I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards.  I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them.  I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees…  I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me.  I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces.  I acquired singers, and a harem as well—all the delights of a man’s heart.  I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me…  I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure, (and I took) delight in all my labor… Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done, and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun…  So I hated life. (verse 17)…  Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied (5:10).

Ecclesiastes 12:13  —  Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.

Mark 8:35-36  —  (Jesus said) “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?