The Blog

Seeking Happiness? Try Pursuing Purpose

It appears we contemporary Americans may have switched the interpretation of "pursuit of happiness" to "pursuit of pleasure."
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I think there can be little disagreement that America, as a whole, has gotten lost in recent years. Otherwise, why do we find ourselves enmeshed in a foreign war that drains our treasury to no discernible end, and facing the worst economic turndown recalled by most of us?

Not only that, but we are more medicated, more illiterate, fatter and sicker. Yet we spend billions on medical science, health care, education and weight loss. Not a pretty report card. Maybe we should all be grounded until it turns around?! (And maybe some of those most responsible should be wearing striped pajamas.)

It occurs to me that perhaps we have misinterpreted the foundation upon which this country was built. The Declaration of Independence states that "we are endowed with certain inalienable rights, among these Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." If you read biographies about the character of men and women who made history when our country was created, they were pursuing happiness as purpose. (Try David McCullough's biography of John Adams for a study of the character of the man--the mini-series failed to capture him.)

Purpose is defined as, "The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists." Also, "a person's sense of resolve or determination." (Oxford American Dictionary)

It takes a lot of resolve and determination to commit treason to a present government and form a new one. As Ben Franklin said, "We must hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately." Not only did each patriot have to be certain of their own individual reason and resolve for challenging the status quo, they had to trust each other sufficiently, and be convinced of the integrity of their fellows.

It appears we contemporary Americans may have switched one interpretation of "pursuit of happiness" to "pursuit of pleasure." If we use the definition of happiness as, "Having a sense of confidence in or happiness with (a person, an arrangement or a situation)" we see that happiness lies in achievement and reaching a state.

If we limit ourselves to the definition of happiness as, "pleasure and contentment", we risk becoming jaded, debauched and apathetic -- somewhat like our present state. If pleasure is our passion, then the senses rule us. As I tell my patients when they are trying to lose weight, "Your tongue is not your friend."

I am not calling for a return to Puritanism, but simply a reversal of a downward trend -- to sense and sensibility, in that order. Sense tells us that eating cream puffs all day will ruin the health, as well as the figure. Sensibility tells us that an occasional cream puff is quite enjoyable, if cream puffs appeal.

This rule could apply to most things in our lives and is a time-honored axiom -- to use moderation. There is even a biological basis for this, in that the cells contain receptor sites and they can get over-worked, making them less responsive. This is what happens when a constant diet of sugar is eaten. The receptor sites for regulating a constant level of sugar in the blood cease to operate bringing about hypoglycemia or Type II Diabetes. Reverse the trend and avoid sugar and the receptor sites rejuvenate, according to Dr. Michael Eades and his work with diabetic patients.

It is interesting that it is almost impossible to have moderation in how we are marketed to, and that presents us with a real problem. Our senses become bombarded with ads that tell us the good life comes from pharmaceutical drugs, packaged food, beer and alcohol, in about that order.

So, it is up to us to put back the purpose in our lives -- to pursue our passions, to pursue excellence, to pursue a society that gives opportunity for all. Not just the opportunity to participate in the drugs, convenience foods and cocktails, but the opportunity to stand together, shoulder to shoulder, to ensure that all our kids can read and think, that there is honest work, human rights and justice for everyone. And those pursuits don't require drugs, convenience foods or cocktails. Just a rekindled purpose.

This video took second place in an AARP contest-take a minute to watch all the way through. It is the voice of a Lost Generation, or perhaps a rebirth of something not lost after all.