1: “Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and Americans have been unhappy ever since,” is the first sentence of Dan Sullivan and Benjamin Hardy‘s powerful book The Gap and The Gain: The High Achiever’s Guide to Happiness, Confidence, and Success.

“One specific phrase has come to define American culture and psychology: ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,'” Dan and Ben observe.

Thomas Jefferson wrestled with the idea of happiness from when he was young. 

“He believed we should aspire to it, but that its actual attainment was likely impossible,” the authors write.

In 1763, as a 20-year-old college student, Thomas wrote a letter to a classmate, John Page, where he reflected on being rejected by a woman: “Perfect happiness, I believe, was never intended by the Deity to be the lot of one of his creatures in this world; but that he has very much put in our power the nearness of our approaches to it, is what I have steadfastly believed.”

Pursuing happiness was an essential part of Thomas’s philosophy. “Not only as a romantically inclined youth,” Dan and Ben observe, “but also as a middle-aged man who was envisioning the principles of a new nation.”

His statement in the Declaration of Independence established happiness as something to be pursued but not attained.

“That notion would go on to shape the culture of America,” Dan and Ben note. “By saying happiness is something we’re pursuing, the direct implication is that we don’t have it now.”

2: What are the implications of this idea?

“Happiness is after the next achievement,” Dan and Ben suggest.

“Happiness is somewhere in the distant future.

“Happiness is out there.

“But happiness is never here.”

3: The idea that happiness is something to be pursued has taken root in the American culture. “If you think this is a stretch, a recent poll found that only 14 percent of American adults say they’re very happy,” Dan and Ben write.

The writers are not “blaming all American unhappiness on one of America’s most important founding fathers. But ideas can create culture, and culture is perhaps the most powerful force shaping human identity and decision-making.”

This idea continues reverberating today: “By embracing the pursuit of happiness, we rob ourselves of happiness in the here and now,” they write. “We fail to appreciate who we are and what we’ve done to this point.”

We diminish the present by believing that our happiness is something we attain in the future. It perpetuates a mindset that happiness is something we have to go out and get. 

“But maybe in the future you will be, or so the logic goes,” Dan and Ben write. 

More tomorrow!


Reflection: What do I believe about happiness? Is it something to be pursued? Or something I already have inside me?

Action: Discuss with my spouse, friend, or colleague.

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