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Pursuing Happiness

Building Community

She stood on the side of the road with a small child on her back and one at her side. The sign read, “Refugee, need help.” It was difficult to just stare straight ahead as, admittedly, we sometimes do when encountering people seeking financial assistance at intersections. The children and the desperate look on her face kept us from turning away. It was a moment of quick decision. Soon the traffic would move and she, along with her children, would be in our rear view mirror. My wife and I glanced at each other, saying yes as we did so. I pulled out $10 and the little boy took it from our hands just as the light began to turn green. 

Did our small gift make a difference? It certainly does nothing to address the immigration challenge with which we as a nation continue to struggle and its consequent harm to millions. We hope that the modest gift helped provide some sustenance on that day for her family. Where we can say the split second decision made difference is with how we felt. 

In the past several years, various publications have reported that people who share progressive or liberal views are on the whole more depressed than their conservative counterparts. The studies which have been done over the past 50 years have shown a consistent trend line that has worsened in recent years, with liberal/progressive leaning people coming up on the short end of the stick when it comes to general happiness. 

It may come as no surprise for anyone who has read this column that I largely identify with this group named as overly unhappy. It has been and remains my conviction that chronic unhappiness serves no one’s interest, whether they are people who see themselves as liberal, conservative or somewhere in between. Happiness is foundational for agency, a belief and feeling that we can make a difference. Even among those whose views are most firmly set, happiness is the crack through which light and new possibilities can break through.

There has been considerable study and analysis about what leads to depression and lack of happiness among those whose views and ideas lean left. Among the potential reasons named is a heightened awareness among liberal leaning people that many of our toughest challenges are systemic, structural in nature and therefore, not easily solved. If, like the Governor of Florida, you insist climate change is a minor issue it is easier to feel joy, even though your state is presently facing another weather related disaster. If, on the other hand, you believe that climate change is an existential crisis that will impact your children and grandchildren, then the intensity of weather patterns takes on a more ominous look and can begin to affect how we feel. The same is true of income inequality, white supremacy, gender discrimination, immigration and the list goes on. They are all big structural issues that can easily feel overwhelming and we are daily reminded of their presence. We then add to all these challenges a candidate for the highest office in the land who continues denying the legitimacy of the last election. Perhaps, depression and lack of joy is the proper response.

Yet, if we learn anything from the Civil Rights movement that may be applicable for our day it is that happiness was essential for continuing, for not giving into despair. For many in the movement one of the essential places for claiming happiness was in song. The Civil Rights movement had a whole collection of songs that lifted the spirits of those facing huge odds against them. In the late 1980s Bobby McFerrin wrote a musical number with the refrain: “Don’t worry, be happy.” Standing by itself, the expression sounds superficial and trite, but put to song, “Don’t Worry Be Happy” seeps into one’s spirit and before long one can feel the emotional uplift that is being conveyed. 

Happiness can make us better neighbors, better partners, better parents, better citizens. As Bobby McFerrin says, “in life you can expect some trouble, but when you worry you make it double. Don’t worry, be happy.” Rather than double our load, happiness lightens the load. 

A shared song is one source of happiness, but so to can be something as simple as a walk in the park. Most sources of real happiness are in fact free or cost very little. Choosing to volunteer one’s time in the community can be, and for many is, a source of happiness. Taking time for and attending to relationships in our lives can be a source of happiness. For many, conservatives and liberals alike, faith, or at the very least a belief in something beyond ourselves, is a source of happiness. Happiness is vital for us all, which may be why James Madison included the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. 

I think about that young mom and her children. I have no doubt that life in this moment is much harder for her than it is for me. It is my hope that in ways both simple and small she will find happiness to share with her children and it will be for them all a source of strength and courage. As for my wife and me, we were both happy that on this day and in this moment we let our eyes stay with this young mom and her children. 

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