The Pursuit of Emptiness
Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness.
Chuang-Tzu had it right. No more need be said. But such is human nature that the more succinctly we state the truth, the better we become at ignoring it. So, despite the completeness of the above homily, I'll proceed, hoping that my volume may insinuate into your worldview what Chuang-Tzu's brevity might not.
Here's what I believe. I believe that extolling the pursuit of happiness was a toxic stupidity entirely unworthy of my greatest American hero, Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, it is a poison that sickens our culture more wretchedly every nanosecond. I wish he'd never said it.
It produces a monstrous, insatiable hunger inside our national psyche that encourages us ever more ravenously to devour all the resources of this small planet, crushing liberties, snuffing lives, feeling ourselves ordained by God and Jefferson to do whatever is necessary to make us happy.
And yet the American people are miserable. Or so it would appear.
A bit of anecdotal evidence (of which I could supply a thousand more examples). At the beginning of this year, my lover Lotte and I decided to start counting the number of spontaneous smiles we might observe in the upscale organic supermarket we frequent in San Francisco.
Since then, we've seen thousands of faces, nearly all of them healthy, beautiful, and very expensively groomed. We have so far counted seven smiles appearing on them. In 11 months. Seven smiles. (And at least three of these were insincere.) I am not kidding about this.
I also spend a lot of time in American airports. The same expression of troubled self-absorption has become a nearly universal mask worn by my people. Rarely do I hear laughter in an airport, despite there being plenty in an airport to laugh about, however darkly.
What am I to think of my people, who, during the year 2000, while feeding at the greatest economic pig-trough the world has ever slopped forth, also ate 13.4 billion dollars worth of Prozac and other anti-depressants (up 18% from the preceding year)? Better living through chemistry? I don't think so. Of my legion friends and acquaintances who have become citizens of Prozac Nation. I have never heard any of them claim that these drugs bring them any closer to actual happiness. Rather, they murmur with listless gratitude, anti-depressants have pulled them back from The Abyss. They are not pursuing happiness. They are fleeing suicide.
Actually, it is unfair to single out America in this regard. The pandemic of longing may have started here in the land of infinite possibilities, but it seems to have spread now to every part of the world where industrial economy and the religion of science have taken deep root since Jefferson, Voltaire, Locke, and their other practical colleagues kicked it off a quarter millennium ago.
The smiles per mile rating is only a little higher in Geneva, Brussels, Washington, Paris, or the other capitals of the Rich World than it is in dour San Francisco. But at least the rest of G8 have not declared happiness to be the kind of patriotic obligation it has become in the country literally founded on its pursuit.
Here we suffer the tyranny of fraudulent bonhomie. Big Brother has arrived as the great Smiley Face. I think I probably sensed this early, since I came from a family where nearly everyone drank themselves into oblivion during times like Christmas when happiness was most pathologically pursued.
But not until I turned 30 was it made obvious to me that my wariness of the pursuit of happiness might be a subtle form of treason. Like many of my generation, I hadn't really expected to live to such an age. I really didn't trust anyone over 30 - and remain reluctant to do so even now - but since I was about to be one, I figured I ought to at least take a stab at graceful adulthood. At least it seemed clear that I would no longer be able to excuse my peccadilloes on the basis of youth.
So I spent the night before my 30th Birthday composing a list of advisories to myself that I called "Principles of Adult Behavior." Most of these were blandly inarguable, the sort of platitudes Polonius liked to lay on Hamlet. Stuff like "Expand your sense of the possible." And, "Tolerate ambiguity."
"Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that."
Despite the safely Puritan kicker, this homily actively pissed off the broadest range of folks you can imagine. Whether hippie, cowboy, redneck or debutante, practically everyone who read my list thought there was something threateningly wrong about this. It was... why, it was downright un-American! I even got this from people who were ashamed to be Americans.
Openly agitating against the very pursuit of happiness was considered a sedition of the most insidious hazard. Because nearly everyone feels its weird invisible pressure - driving them to the fatigue that is despair, in order to acquire possessions that possessed them, money that turned their friends monstrous, addictions that turned them monstrous - nearly everyone feels that secret shame of not trying hard enough to be happy.
To have someone tell them they should just stop trying felt like a threat to the oath they'd taken with their lives. They had sworn, sometime during adolescence, that they would pursue happiness, and, by raw will, that they would catch some. When you've sacrificed so much to a creed, having it disappear turns your sacrifices into stolen goods.
So Jefferson's gentle aspiration had become law. The right to do something counter-productive - pursing something that flees in absolute symmetry with your desire, pursuing happiness - had become an obligation, as surely as charity became entitlements. If we were not pursing happiness - whatever the hell that meant to whom-the-hell-ever - we were not part of the Great Work of America.
Yet even as happiness became our American due, the inner sense that we deserve to be happy seems to have generally withered. Kant spoke of "making ourselves worthy of happiness." It seems to me a rare American who behaves as if he has done so.
I don't know where the disease arises, but I think there's an epidemic of self-loathing in this country that is, besides the folly of the pursuit itself, the greatest barrier to contentment in most hearts. I can't count the number of people I've known whose misery amidst plenty seemed to be a suspicion of joy rooted so deeply in their personalities that it had to have been planted during infancy. It's not simply the sensible awareness of cycles - that the natural price of magic is tragedy and that life actually is fair. If only it were that wise.
Rather it seems a sense of one's own unremembered original sin, the hazy belief that by failing some early test in life, the wretch has made himself forever unworthy of any earthly paradise he might accumulate around himself. I've had two friends commit suicide rather than accept their own successes, and I'm sure there are more of their kind out there.
Get over it. No matter how bad you are, you deserve some happiness. Just don't consider it either a right or an obligation.
Let me be clear. I like happiness. Hell, I think I am happy most of the time. (I know. Most Americans, when polled, will tell you the same thing, but I look happy most of the time, which cannot be said of most Americans.)
And when I'm happy, why am I happy?
Never because I pursued it. Rather because I let it pursue me. To me, it seems that the more you ignore it, the more it will come looking. Swami Satchidananda put it better:
"If you run after things, nothing will come to you. Let things run after you. The sea never sends an invitation to the rivers. That's why they run to the sea. The sea is content. It doesn't want anything. That's the secret in life."
I'm not sure what would happen to our economy if everyone took this dictum to heart, but I have a feeling it might come to look like Satchidananda's. But would that be as bad as it sounds? While I'm not ready to move to India, my experiences in Africa make me wonder if I wouldn't be happier moving there.
I've spent a lot of time in Africa over the last several years and, wherever I go in that supposedly dark continent, I am continuously amazed by how happy most people seem to be. Despite living with pandemic AIDS, starvation, filth, disease, and ghoulish little wars where children dismember one another, most Africans grin and wave as I pass through their villages. They seem to mean it, too. They would probably not have a similar experience were they to pass through our suburbs.
The apparent happiness of Africans, against all horror, seems to derive from a sense of connectedness, or as the Zulu put it, "ubunto." This word is often translated to mean community, but one of them gave me what I think is a more accurate definition: "I am because we are; we are because I am."
In other words, their pursuit of happiness seems more successful than ours because it is not a solitary endeavor. African happiness is a joint enterprise, something that can only be created by the whole. I am happy because we are happy. Much contentment arises from a sense of family, community, and connectedness.
Such virtues are in dwindling supply in America. Two thirds of all our first marriages end in divorce. The war between children and parents has never been uglier (since it is now concealed, rather than public as it was in the '60's). We think AOL and the local mall are communities. We think that Disney, the corporation, is a story-teller. And, to the extent, we are connected at all, it is largely by mass media like television, which, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, "allows thousands of people to laugh at the same joke and still remain alone."
Imagine an evening spent peering through the suburban windows of America. Think of the faces you would behold within, lit pale by the flickering blue bath of electrons Big Content blasts out for their "entertainment." Slack-jawed and silent, one hand gripping a Bud, the other in a bag of Fritos, they watch other "people" pass through contrived "ordeals" and imagine themselves pursuing happiness.
But they are not pursuing happiness. They are seeking what I call The Zone, a mental and emotional condition where nothing happens. Nothing can happen except for the most rudimentary necessities of life and manufactured entertainment. When Zoned, they are left alone. They are being granted a twisted kind of peace.
By this I don't mean that The Zone is a halcyon and serene mental condition. It's only correspondence to those states aspired to by Oriental mystics is outward dispassion. It's more like being in an iron lung than any condition you'd achieve by sitting Zazen. Rather than being detached from the illusory world of perceptions, one is painfully separated from a world which seems quite real. Absolutely no one likes being in The Zone. What's peculiar is that not only do we allow it to exist, we encourage it in practically every venue of our lives, whether it be in our workplace cubicles, our commuting cars, our Sisyphean Stair-Masters, our Generican landscaped landscapes.
While Zoned, one is under no obligation to care about anything more enduring than, say, who wins the football game, and it appears that many of us would rather not.
If we can't entertain ourselves into happiness, what about buying it? I skirted the issue earlier, but I suppose that something does need to be said about wealth and happiness. After all, Jefferson's dangerous statement of the essential liberties was preceded by John Locke's "Life, Liberty, and Property." Given the similarity of these two phrases, it's only natural that a certain conflation would take place. And it has.
Almost everyone in American seems to regard wealth and happiness as though they were practically interchangeable. Even the wise Bessie Smith is reported to have said, "I been rich and I been poor, and let me tell you, Honey, rich is better." Maybe. But let's define our terms.
If, as I suspect, she was talking about dirt poor vs. modestly rich, I would agree with her. But most Americans in pursuit of material happiness are attempting to move from modest poverty to filthy riches, and, having watched scores of my friends come down with what Stewart Brand calls "toxic wealth" over the last decade, I wouldn't trade places with any of them. (Not even now, when my own recent wealth has evaporated...) I feel I have enough money to stave off terror, but hardly enough to put me in the grip of paranoid anomie and the paralysis of purpose that seems to have afflicted most of them. And I never have to wonder whether anyone actually loves me for my money.
I suspect that the greatest benefit of the DotBoom and subsequent DotBust will turn out to be that more people have experienced great and ephemeral wealth at an early age than ever before in history. There is now among us a very large number of young people who know the emptiness that can only come from three Porsches in the garage and two bimbos in the bed. There are a lot of smart kids who are now more dedicated to making a difference than making a dollar. At least most of them now know, in a deep way, that money doesn't buy happiness.
Alright then, if you can't pursue happiness, how can you make yourself a fertile place for happiness to grow of its own? Happiness being the most subjective of states, I can only speak for myself. I have found four qualities that I believe naturally enrich the ecology of joy. When I'm capable of sustaining them, they sustain me and continue to do so even in these strange days. They are: a sense of mission, the casual service of others, the solace of little delights, and finally, love for its own sake.
Having a sense of mission has served me extremely well, even better than I thought it would when I wrote Adult Principle Number 15 and bound myself to purpose rather than its by-product. Often I would have been hard-pressed to define mine and it has certainly taken on many different manifestations in the course of my careers, but I have taken a lot of happiness from a sense - often grandiose and sometimes illusory - that I am, by my various actions, helping create a future that will be more free, more tolerant, more open, and more just.
My primary ambition is to be a good ancestor, and though, by definition, I will never know if I've succeeded, I am pleased to believe that I'm giving it my best shot.
Connected to the happiness of mission is another joy that can no more be pursued than grace itself: the gift of creation. I've been blessed by the opportunity to let art pass through me on occasion. Whether songs, or essays, or interestingly designed haystacks, these manifestations of beauty, for which I take no more credit than the faucet should take for the water, have been wonderful gifts.
The sense that one has become the instrument of invention is so satisfying that I find it truly stupefying that anyone one would claim that artists are motivated to create primarily by the money they might get from such miracles. Not to say they shouldn't be paid. Paying them provides them with more time and liberty to channel art. But it's a rare artist who's in it for the money. A real artist creates because he has no choice. He is pressed into the involuntary service of art, and thereby, humanity.
Which brings me to another solace cheaply available to all. Consider the joys of service. As a few leaders, ranging from Jimmy Carter to the Dalai Lama, demonstrate with their lives, we can become happy through the exercise of compassion. But following the training we receive in schools and workplaces, we have come to regard service as self-suppressing obligation rather than a self-fulfilling responsibility. It doesn't have to be that way.
I think a related problem is that we tend to approach service the same way we approach exercise programs, in lunges and spasms of temporary idealism. We raise the initial bar too high. We fail to see that they also serve who, while not quite heading off to Calcutta to comfort dying lepers, merely treat the strangers miscellaneously at hand with a little humor and kindness. You don't have to be Gandhi to be a good guy. There are few things that make me happier than successfully resisting the impulse to snarl at some idle transgressor and elevating myself into an actively benign stance. Such opportunities arise almost hourly. (Not that I always rise to them.) The habit of small kindnesses is immensely rewarding.
Which brings me to another under-appreciated fountain of happiness: the common little joys the universe leaves lying around for the truly casual observer. I think of something Kafka - that noted happiness-hound - wrote:
"It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet."
He is not talking about the pursuit of happiness. He's not even talking, as one might easily and incorrectly conclude, about lying in wait for happiness. He's talking about making oneself genuinely available to it. He is talking about opening one's senses to the little delights - the sunsets, the lilac-scented breezes, the hilarious bartender jokes, the quick flash of anonymous smiles, the inside straights, the large purring cats, the click of stiletto heels, the popping of bubble-wrap, the liquid song of the meadowlark, the shrug of a New York cop - the granular texture of unsolicited joy.
There have been many hard times in my life - including the present - when I took refuge in reduced focus, comforting myself with the glorious filigree of immediate existence. Even a man facing a firing squad can appreciate the dawn that also arrays itself before him.
Finally, and always, there is love. By this, I don't mean that economic bargain that often passes for love these days. I don't mean that I will love you if you get good grades, or that I will love you if you'll sleep with me, or that I will love you if anything. I mean what I mean when I say, "I love you." Period. Without expectation, condition, term limit, codicil, or obligation. To say that - and to mean it in that way - makes me happy.
What makes me happiest of all is when someone says "I love you" to me - meaning it as unconditionally as I intend to mean it - and I simply accept it. Learning to accept unconditional love has been the most demanding part of my education. It requires me to love myself as much as I am loved, which is not easy, since I like to pretend that my loathsome short-comings are invisible to all but me.
Still, when I love without goal and accept love without doubt, I am happy. In this, I am not pursuing happiness. I am becoming it.
(A shorter version appeared in the December 2001 Forbes ASAP.)