For a story I once wrote during my time with the Associated Press about the demise of civics in public education, I found an anecdote that illuminated the problem. It was about how some high school seniors could not name any of our three most famous rights even after someone spotted them the first two from the Declaration of Independence.
There was life, liberty, and …
Silence. Then, finally, one student thought he had it. “Death,” he answered.
The correct answer is the pursuit of happiness. You remember that one. It’s ours. It’s unalienable. It cannot be taken away. And yet I’ve been thinking lately of a different danger: What if we’re giving it away?
It is not, after all, the state of happiness that we’re guaranteed, but the pursuit. It demands action. It requires that we constantly shape our story, adjust to the end of relationships, and start new ones. More recently, it has meant combatting pandemic isolation with reflection and connection and, for many, shedding unsatisfying jobs for better ones—and all while many of us are raising other young humans.
No wonder that forgetting this endowed right doesn’t feel so wrong. Pursuing happiness can be exhausting, risky, and open-ended—and I’ve never felt more compelled to do it.
I covered presidents as a journalist, and I made it to partner in business, and I became a first-time author at 51. These are the markers of a communications path of which I’m proud, but they are titles, not traits. The real meaning comes from what underpins work and life: the passion you have, the people you know, the joy you cause, the difference you make.
I am among the lucky during COVID-19, and I have tried to remember it: I kept my health and my job, and my family is fine. That good fortune, however, should not overshadow the time, connection, and laughter that all of us lost. That is why I am on a new pursuit of happiness, prioritizing people who appreciate and reciprocate, focused on a life that is mindful of optional noise, stress, and bad habits, and gets rid of them.
This is how I began 2022, fiercely focused on rediscovery. I left my job in search of one in which I would be happier, knowing the risks of inertia were worse than any I would find out there.
On the hard days, there’s a reminder of why it matters: my 11-year-old son, Sam. I’ve spent his life trying to teach him how to tackle life’s challenges. One day a few years ago, he turned it around on me. Seeing me exasperated over a setback, he said, “Daddy. Don’t. Get. Frustrated.” And then he proceeded to calm me with the same perspective I’d been hoping to instill in him.
He’s right. Let go of what isn’t working. When people say, “It is what it is,” don’t just accept it. Turns out, life often is what it isn’t.
Ben Feller is a partner at maslansky + partners and the author of Big Problems, Little Problems. He lives in New York City.