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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  A Few Clouds
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American idyll
As you grill that brat on July 4, consider your unalienable right to pursue happiness

On a recent Friday night, the Memorial Union Terrace was hopping. Hordes had assembled to eat, drink, listen to music, chat, flirt and generally make merry. But were they happy?

Surely, a certain number were nursing hurts - a broken romance, a lost loved one, a wretched semester of study, feelings of inadequacy, pangs of depression and so on.

How many were simply putting on happy faces because the Memorial Union Terrace on a summer's night is no place for sad faces? How many were, for at least an evening, engaged in the classic American behavior: Pursuing their happiness.

On July 4 we commemorate the Declaration of Independence. As you may not remember, Thomas Jefferson's screed is mostly a long list of complaints about King George III, who comes across like Genghis Khan on a meth bender. "He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people," Jefferson declares.

But famously there is also a curious and profound statement of American purpose that electrifies us even to this day: "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."

So there it is, in black and white: We're Americans. Our God wants us to be happy. So more beer, more music, more fun!

But as that mordant cynic Tony Soprano put it: "You know, we're the only country in the world where the pursuit of happiness is guaranteed in writing? Bunch of spoiled brats."

Ton' may be on to something. Maybe it is unseemly and ultimately juvenile to dedicate our lives to feeling good. Might happiness involve something more than a cold beer on a warm summer's night? Is it possible to be happy with your life, but occasionally angry, depressed and fearful, too? I think so.

I think that state of being - content, but with sad moments - is exactly what Jefferson was thinking about.

I asked a historian what the Founding Fathers meant by happiness. "John Adams gave a pretty good definition in his 'Thoughts on Government,'" e-mails Pauline Maier, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology historian whose books include American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence.

Adams wrote "Thoughts on Government" in April 1776, as the leaders of the American colonies were contemplating their future. "[T]he form of government," he wrote, "which communicates ease, comfort, security or in one word happiness to the greatest number of people, and in the greatest degree, is the best." A few paragraphs later Adams added "freedom" to the equation.

That is one version of colonial-era happiness, anyway. The concept had a swirling definition in those revolutionary days. By 1784, New Hampshire had adopted a constitutional Bill of Rights that equated happiness with "enjoying and defending life and liberty - acquiring, possessing and protecting property." And thus was enshrined the very American notion that pursuing happiness is all wrapped up with owning stuff.

Lots of stuff. Bigger and better stuff. More stuff.

Like my new 42" high-definition television. Now that's my idea of happiness. It lets me, from a seemingly great distance, watch a guy eating a hot dog in the stands at Fenway Park with such clarity that I can almost smell the Grey Poupon.

The TV has sat in my living room since I bought it a few weeks ago - over Memorial Day weekend - which means that I celebrated that national holiday the way some of you, perhaps, will celebrate Independence Day: By making a major purchase.

For months I had watched the sales, and at last I spotted a set that had reasonably good features at a reasonably good price. When I saw the ad, I went to Circuit City, just to look. Then I drove home. Then I drove back to Circuit City and bought the television, and thereby joined the millions watching that guy eat a hot dog.

The picture is fabulous, and so is the sound. DVDs look great, and high-definition broadcasts are simply stunning.

So after I bought the TV, I was happy, right?

Well, I was prudent in my pursuit of happiness. I did make certain compromises, including the fact that my set is a 720p. These days it's all about 1080p, and any fool can tell that 1080 is much bigger than 720. I also bought a TV made by a company you've probably never heard of.

Yet I still paid a price that would have made my grandmother, who grew up in the Depression, take her anti-anxiety pill. Buying the new television also meant buying a new DVD player, and various pricey cables. All this made me not happy, but rather: uneasy about the mounting expense.

The transition also involved numerous unpleasant conversations with employees of the cable company, Charter Communications. Among them was a woman overseas who addressed me as "Mr. Kenneth," and said I would be billed twice for a mistake I didn't make (unless, if I understood her correctly, I paid still another fee), then hung up when I asked to speak to a supervisor.

These interactions caused me to raise my voice, something good friends know I never do. And now my dad tells me that my brother also bought a high-def TV, and I'll bet you anything it's a 1080p.

What is this about? Why did this quintessentially American act - buying a big-ass television - leave me angry, uncertain, fearful, envious? Wait, I thought it might make me happy.

I grew up in Tennessee, and my roots in that state reach back to about 1808, when my great-great-great-great-great Uncle Peter moved from Virginia to a valley - a cove, in the local parlance - in the Great Smoky Mountains, acquired 444 acres and began farming. Generations of my family farmed that land.

Then I came along, but instead of farming the family homestead - my dad and his brother now own it - I moved to Wisconsin to become, in rapid succession, a political scientist in training, a country music singer, a newspaper editor. And, not least, this Tennessean became a Badger.

Significantly, though, I still feel a deep connection to that Tennessee land and the people around it, and it turns out that this feeling is an important component of happiness.

So says Delia Unson, a Madison psychotherapist. "We need to connect to something beyond ourselves, something that gives a sense of wholeness and belonging," she says. "And I don't think a person can be happy by themselves, There's a need for community, for connecting to people you can feel close to."

This begins to explain why my new high-def TV leaves me feeling apprehensive. True, I am certainly not the only American to join the cocooning movement, whereby we watch our movies at home and thus avoid the cinemas' overpriced food and talkative audiences.

But when I watch television at home, I disconnect myself from my community in all its chatty messiness. Hundreds of cable channels give me the illusion of a frontier, of a vast space to be explored. But ultimately I am not going anywhere. I am on the couch with the remote control.

For all that I loathe talkative movie audiences, a movie-going experience I recall fondly is a July 4, 2005 matinee I attended of Steven Spielberg's alarming War of the Worlds. The auditorium at Eastgate Cinemas was packed, and the audience members around me were not merely talking - they were screaming, and so was I.

Had I watched the film at home, I might have repeatedly paused it, taken several phone calls, stopped watching altogether. Instead I watched it as a member of a community, and I had an experience that left me feeling drained, frightened - and, yes, happy.

I watch too much television. I doubt I am alone among my fellow Americans, and this points to one of the traps of the pursuit of happiness. If a small amount of something makes us happy, we reason, then surely a really big dollop will make us even happier.

Our impulse is to consume more and more - whether it's television, McMansions or fries. Supersize me, please.

"It can be running, golf, computer games, work," adds Unson. "If you spend too much time doing only one thing, your life goes out of balance."

Our error, perhaps, is that too often we confuse the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of pleasure. Of course, pleasure can be a component of happiness, but pleasure pursued exclusively for itself can become horribly unfulfilling.

As with sex. Sex brings happiness, surely, but also confusion. It leaves many people feeling unsatisfied, and still we can't get enough.

"Compulsively using anything can make you unhappy," says Ellen Barnard, co-owner of the sex-positive emporium A Woman's Touch. "Whether it's Internet porn or seeking more and more partners."

Barnard promotes a healthy approach to sex that, she says, helps people live better lives. "What you get from really good sex," she says, "from being wide-open and trusting, from working really hard, is that you lose yourself to that intimate moment, and I think that contributes profoundly to happiness."

That said, she notes that sex does not automatically lead to satisfaction. "Having bad sex with partners you don't like, or when you're not present in your body, is absolutely not the road to happiness."

And it works both ways: "If you're somebody who can laugh and play, you're going to be seen as more happy, and you're going to feel more happy and have better sex."

On the afternoon of May 4, a crowd of 12,000 assembled at the Kohl Center to hear his holiness the Dalai Lama. Many showed up simply to lay eyes on him, or to bask in his rightly famous good vibes. But surely most also were interested in the topic of his speech: "Compassion: The Source of Happiness."

This gathering, too, seemed peculiarly American. It seemed typical of how we seek happiness from gurus, whether avuncular daytime television personalities or holy men like the Dalai Lama.

"There is no disagreement," he said. "We all want happiness. We all do not want suffering."

Happiness, he said, is almost an act of will. We attain more happiness - he also spoke of calmness, inner peace, inner strength - the more we avoid negative emotions like anger and resentment.

After the talk I felt happy, and for many days I contemplated what he had said about avoiding negative emotions. I was able to do it, a little, and still felt happy - at least until the next-door neighbors hung their wind chimes just outside my bedroom window.

But is it really that easy? We become happy by choosing not to be unhappy? We have a lot of hours in the day to fill, and most of us do not have the luxury of spending them in pointedly not thinking negative thoughts.

Most of us have to work, in fact, and therein lies one of Americans' most profound sources of ambivalence. Americans work longer hours and take fewer vacations than just about anyone else in the world - and many of us take our laptops and cell phones on vacation, just in case we need to check in with the office.

If we revere Thomas Jefferson as a Founding Father, and his complicated notions of human rights, we also revere Benjamin Franklin, who filled books with pithy admonitions to work hard, like this one: "At the workingman's house hunger looks in, but dares not enter."

And this one: "He that idly loses five shillings' worth of time loses five shillings, and might as prudently throw five shillings into the sea."

Yet the elderly Franklin lived a famously posh life as an American envoy to France, reveling in the company of young women and partying like it was 1799. He may have published homilies about hard work, but he also pursued pleasure with a wink and a smile. How utterly American he was in his divided habits.

For all our hard work, we yearn to find enjoyable ways to spend our time outside of our jobs, notes psychotherapist Unson, and sometimes that even means, yes, buying stuff.

"For me, it's good binoculars," she says. Unson is a birder, and when she is not counseling patients at her Monroe Street office, she often is in the woods. "The connection to nature is really important," she says.

There is happiness in her voice when she describes the allure of her hobby: It lets her visit new places. It lets her meet friendly, like-minded people. And it regularly exposes her to the quiet beauty of the outdoors.

"For a lot of people, being out in nature feeds the soul," she says. "Connection to nature is connection to the divine."

But, of course, Americans finds their connections in a gazillion different ways. We roam the country in Airstreams. We make pots of money in software. We collect outsider art or airbrushed plates or Star Trek memorabilia. We attend nude car shows and polka masses. We dress in leather and head to The Inferno to meet our friends from the bondage community.

And so the picture begins to fall into place. As Americans, we do seem to be uniquely charged by the Declaration with pursuing happiness. It's a national trait that is attractive to outsiders, notes Sara Yervand, a native of Armenia who moved to Madison in 1995 and who took the oath of citizenship last May 16.

"This country, as I've learned," she says, "was built on people from other nations coming here in pursuit of happiness. That was appealing to me. You can express yourself, and you can bring the qualities of your nation to the melting pot."

So we attain happiness - or calmness or inner peace, if you prefer - by finding just the right balance of work, leisure, nature, material goods, community and good sex. Oh, and we try to avoid those negative thoughts.

Curt Anderson, senior minister of First Congregational United Church of Christ, explains the spiritual dimension to happiness.

In Greek, he notes, the word blessed also can be translated happy, and then he begins to recite from the Gospel of Matthew:

"Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."

It's a lesson I recall from my own religious upbringing: blessed means happy. But happy are those who mourn? That's a mouthful.

"The Bible actually knows virtually nothing about happiness in the sense of, 'Let's go boating!,'" says Anderson. Likewise, he notes, the example of Jesus' self-denial is instructive to Christians on the matter of material possessions - flat-screen plasma televisions, say.

"As a Christian living in America, I believe that liberty and the ability to choose are integral to the fulfillment of what it means to be a Christian," Anderson says. "But just saying we are free is not enough, living here, where personal, material fulfillment is held up as the absolute goal of existence."

But, I ask, how can mourners be happy?

Anderson begins his answer by talking about his church's struggle against the same-sex marriage amendment on last November's ballot. Members volunteered their time to canvass, took days off from work and collaborated with Fair Wisconsin, the group that led the fight against the ban.

"There was a deep sadness and a sense of loss, or grief, when it passed," he says. "Yet in the midst of the pain - and it was a distant pain for me; for lesbian and gay members of the church, it was immediate - in the midst of that, there was a sense of a shared, common experience. There was sadness, there was loss, bitterness, but there was also a sense of hope, even in that loss - of community, of strength together, of commitment."

He adds, "Maybe that's what the Bible means by blessedness. We were mourning, but we also celebrated the work we did together, and the hope we have for the day when there will be full equality."

Which is to say, Jefferson's celebration of the pursuit of happiness shouldn't be confused with achieving happiness.

Sometimes the pursuit ends in sadness, and that is when our fabled optimism comes in handy. The part of the Declaration of Independence that we memorize is exceedingly hopeful, and even amid sorrow it reminds us that if we work enough, and rest enough, and have community enough, there can be happiness.

I will contemplate that as I watch the fireworks.

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