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The Pursuit of Happiness

It's enshrined in the Declaration of Independence! It must be a good thing. And yet .....

When he wrote that we had a right to pursue happiness, but not to catch it, Thomas Jefferson showed that he was a canny character. Modern psychology backs him up on that. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert is making a career out of studying happiness and he says that we are seldom actually happy. We believe that lots of things will make us happy, but the actual feeling of happiness only lasts a few moments. Then we're pursuing something else that we believe will make us happy. So Jefferson was right. Pursuing happiness is where it's at. We don't spend much time actually being happy. To us humans, happiness is like a car is to my dog. What are you going to do with it if you catch it? And our answer is the same as the dog's too. Chase a different car.

I wasted twenty years not understanding this. I thought I would be happy if I was successful in my chosen career. But as I reached each plateau of accomplishment, another beckoned, just out of reach. It drove me nuts, I think now, quite literally. I tried to be an alchoholic, but it didn't work for me. I must not have the genes for it. I thought deeply about what it meant to "go postal". The pursuit of happiness boomeranged into a realization of sadness that really did have staying power. Daniel Gilbert says sadness is just momentary too, but he's wrong.

The best thing that ever happened to me was that I flagged out of the rat race with an overheating engine. So I sat in the garage for years and watched the race from the sidelines, not really pursuing much of anything. On the way out the race, a friend told me about Buddha's "Parable of the Strawberry". A monk is trapped on a cliff with hungry tigers above and below him and the vine he's hanging on is coming apart. He sees a strawberry and eats it. "It tasted so sweet."

These days, I eat every strawberry I happen to find. Some days, there are strawberries. Some days, there are none. But whenever I find one, I savor its sweet taste.

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