Happiness is such a strong desire; the right to pursue happiness is even mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.  But we learned recently that Thomas Jefferson had something else in mind. We’re fascinated by the original meanings of words, so we were especially interested to learn the word pursue had an entirely different meaning in Jefferson’s day. In her book,  Happy For No Reason, author Marci Shimoff, reported a conversation she had with her friend and trivia master, Stewart Emery, that made it clear most Americans are short-changing themselves.

Emery pointed out that Jefferson was not talking about the right to chase happiness. To Jefferson, a pursuit was a practice. Shocking! “Life, liberty and the practice of happiness!”  Happy every day? Yup, that’s what he meant.  That makes complete sense; there’s no happiness in pursuit, only in reaching the goal.  So happiness based on anything outside us will always be ephemeral. As soon as the person, event, accomplishment is over or gone, the happiness goes with it.  Then an entirely new pursuit must be undertaken.

Jefferson must have had something more substantial in mind when he used the word practice. After all it’s unlikely he meant we should practice happiness like someone learning an instrument practices to become proficient at playing it. That would take us right back to the idea of pursuit. It’s far more likely he was thinking of experiencing a deep inner contentment or joy that doesn’t rely on anything outside us. Was Jefferson implying that Americans should be secure and stable enough to free us from anxiety and remain connected with those things most satisfying to the inner self? If so, few have reached this point.

Pursuit means we’re lacking, practice means we’re trying. Either way, we’re not experiencing. And it’s likely Jefferson realized that the experience of joy is what really matters. We can each leave pursuit and practice behind and enjoy the experience of joy.  Joy results from knowing who and what we are. It comes from recognizing our indivisible connection to All That Is. And when that is fully realized, we can move into a state of permanent bliss.

Lee and Steven Hager are the authors of The Beginning of Fearlessness: Quantum Prodigal Son, a spiritual quest and scientific adventure.

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