Over 200 years ago, America’s founding fathers created a document that identified America as a unique entity with a unique commitment to its citizens. The document was the Declaration of Independence and it was unlike anything that had preceeded it or that has been created since then. The first lines of the Declaration contain some of its most radical language. One sentence in particular stands out: “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 my 21st century interpretation of these words, I understand the word ‘men’ to refer to all human beings, both men and women. It is also important to acknowledge the significance of the distinction between holding the pursuit of happiness, and not happiness itself as a right. No one is entitled to happiness, but we all possess the right to pursue it.
Although the Declaration of Independence is not expressive of any particular religion’s beliefs, it is reflective of a spiritual perspective that acknowledges a “creator” that provided everyone with certain intrinsic rights, including the right to pursue happiness. The Declaration affirms that all Americans have the right to pursue happiness in whatever form they choose, provided that their pursuit doesn’t violate the rights of others or the laws of the land. In 2008, it’s difficult for us to appreciate what a radical stance this statement reflected on the part of our country’s founders. To a degree that few of us can even imagine, life in Colonial America and in much of the late 18th century world was focused, for the vast majority of the population, upon the fulfillment of basic survival requirements like food, shelter, and other fundamental needs. Happiness, while valued and seen as desirable, was practically irrelevant in the grand scheme of things since it was a luxury that could only be considered after more urgent needs were fulfilled. And in a world where threats, dangers and scarcity was for most people the rule rather than the exception, few spent much time even considering that luxury. Adequately managing life’s daily challenges for most was considered an indication of success.
Incorporating these words into the Declaration of Independence was indeed a powerful acknowledgement of the legitimacy of our intrinsically human desire to experience fulfillment and well-being as well as an implicit recognition of the achievability of this state of being. No other country at that time had proclaimed that all of it’s citizens, not just those of nobility or special circumstances, were entitled to engage in a quest for happiness. And no other country has explicitly stated anything like that ever since, with one exception. In 1972, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, leader of the nation of Bhutan, in a desire to serve his country’s unique culture, instituted a policy that measured what he referred to as GNH or Gross National Happiness. One of the things that makes Bhutan’s culture unique is that its government is based upon Buddhist values. While conventional governmental definitions of national success have to do primarily with economic growth, Gross National Happiness is based upon the idea that the measurement of true achievement in a society takes into consideration both its spiritual as well as its material development. While GNH is obviously more difficult to measure objectively than is GNP (Gross National Product), it may be a much more accurate indicator of the true quality of life that a nation’s citizens enjoy.
In adopting this criteria, Bhutan makes the statement that national success is not adequately reflected by economics alone but must also include factors such as personal fulfillment, physical and emotional health, governance based upon integrity, environmental sustainability, and spiritual development. Adopting this criteria of course does not insure that it’s fulfillment will be achieved easily or at all. It does, however provide a clear understanding of the nation’s highest priorities and requires its policies to reflect these values. While Bhutan has it’s own challenges and problems as do all nations, it exemplifies a new paradigm of government that provides a model that may contain elements that are worth considering. While there is no denying the importance of economics as significant factor in our lives, when economics is not balanced by other values it becomes very easy to become obsessed with finance and mistakenly and unconsciously believe that money is the source of all happiness, even as we may insist that “money can’t buy happiness.”
Our present economic crisis may be a symptom of a shared belief that, to paraphrase Vince Lombardi, “money isn’t the biggest thing, it’s the ONLY thing!” This notion gets restated and implied in countless forms on an ongoing basis throughout our lives with the result being a continual reinforcement of some very distorted and damaging beliefs. These views can cause us to see other aspects of life as having little or no worth, and can lead to an obsession with the material aspects of life. When we become excessively preoccupied with matter, we neglect matters of the heart, soul, and spirit. When we do, materialism becomes not simply something we believe in, but something that we worship.
Our current financial situation has the potential to wake us up to the underlying causes of our predicament which may be at least as much about our own confusion about what really matters in life, as it is about greedy and irresponsible bankers and real estate brokers. Imagine what life might be like if we invested as much of our life resources like time, energy, money, and effort, into what we SAY is most important to us, like friendship, love, happiness, and contribution to others. Imagine how the quality of your life might be different if you gave as much attention to the quality of your relationships, the degree of integrity that you embody, your spiritual development, and your highest values, as you do your investment portfolio or the size of your bank account. Doing so does not mean neglecting your material concerns, but rather holding them in proper perspective, cultivating and strengthening other aspects that are essential to a high quality of life, and bringing it all together into an integrated whole.
While some people insist that dedicating your life to the pursuit of happiness is a selfish thing to do, in actuality the opposite is true. Happiness is contagious. Our moods affect those around us. According to studies cited by Arthur Brooks in his book, Gross National Happiness, happy people treat others better than unhappy people do. They give more to charitable causes. They create healthier marriages. They are better parents and better citizens. They act with greater integrity. They work harder and volunteer more than unhappy people. They increase our nation’s prosperity and strengthen our communities. And one of the great secrets that is known to all happy people is that what promotes happiness more than anything else is the practice of supporting others in becoming happier themselves. But don’t take my word for it. Give it a try. What have you got to lose?