In laying the foundation of the United States of America and all its laws, constitutions, bills, etc., one phrase reverberated throughout the hearts and minds of forefathers: “the pursuit of happiness” (Burns, 2003, p. 227). Francis Hutcheson believed pursuing and attaining happiness was a sacred right that must be granted to all humanity, citing that human beings were generally good-hearted and benevolent (Burns, 2003, p. 228). Thomas Jefferson bore similar ideas, arguing that the pursuit of happiness was a shared desire by all and should be maximized to the highest degree (Burns, 2003, p. 228-229). However, unbeknownst to us more often than not, this pursuit is hindered or seldom attained (Burns, 2003, p. 228-229). Many perform back-breaking work to make ends meet, missing out on education, happiness, and other normative life experiences (Burns, 2003, p. 228-229). While small instances and glimmers of happiness and joy trickle into the consciousness of those who work and suffer, our goal must become to create more opportunities that perpetuate and restore joy to all within our communities and within the reaches of our leadership practices (Burns, 2003, p. 229).
Tying in with the pursuit of happiness, Psychology often seeks to understand joy and life-satisfaction through the idea of subjective well-being. In this, research indicates that the process of working toward finding happiness in some facet or area of life affects our sense of well-being as if we have already found that happiness (Shmotkin, 2005). Further, how we view, cope with, and handle stressors or adverse situations continues to shape our outlook and the satisfaction, joy, and happiness we find within our lives in the midst of these (Shmotkin, 2005). Our sense of well-being and joyfulness are pluralistic – not only are they shaped by the outcome or fruits of our labors, but also by the processes we employ by which we hope to find joy, contentment, surprise, awe, and happiness in all we do (Shmotkin, 2005). All of humanity seeks to find happiness and satisfaction in their world. In diverse ways, we all seek to find these in different endeavors, practices, beliefs, actions, and behaviors or habits. However, we are not always guaranteed that we will lead lives in which there are almost never dark, painful, or unhappy moments. As we experience suffering in the world, we are reminded that there is another part to our story, and that is finding the good and the meaning in everything we face. And, lastly, as we see suffering in the world, we are reminded of one more part of the story: that we are called to help others to find light, meaning, and value in all situations, even those that may be painful or in which we cannot see the good outright or clearly.
In my personal leadership, I often struggle with trying to find meaning in the midst of suffering and joy in the midst of sorrow. At times, when I reflect upon my life, I see happiness interwoven into it, but also see the despair and hopelessness of others whose only difference between myself is location, access to education, and resources. I feel conflicted and guilty more often than I want to admit. Had I been born in another time, location, family, what have you, my life and circumstances could look very different. With this realization, in all areas of my life, I desire to lead a life that brings light, hope, joy and authenticity to everyone whom I encounter. It is not so much that I believe we must chase after happiness in life, but rather that in every experience there is something for us to find longer lasting joy, meaning, and value, and profit from it. I want to honor and acknowledge the blessings in my own life and create opportunities for others to do the same, understanding that there will be times when there may be no such thing to honor and acknowledge in another’s life. I want to work towards establishing communities grounded in the idea that all within it are deserving of love, compassion, happiness, and forgiveness, and I start by doing this work in my interactions, relationships, speech, gestures, and outlook.
Looking to Bryan Stevenson’s work and experiences in Just Mercy, he discusses the cases of children tried as adults and kept in maximum security, dehumanizing prisons on death row or serving life in prison without parole (Stevenson, 2015, p. 254-273). In our normative view of children, we acknowledge that they make mistakes but are generally good, benevolent kids who are still learning and growing. When we see children do something deemed terrible, we assume they are inherently flawed, evil, and bad and allow ourselves to believe that they absolutely had the critical thinking and judgment skills of an adult. We no longer consider that they are still developing: their brain is not yet fully formed. Hearing these children’s personal stories confronts our own blindness and assumptions, and should remind us of their humanity, their needs for love and belonging, and their life’s circumstances that have hurt them and led them to where they are. Some have suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of parents, friends, relatives. With this, it is up to us to work towards combating the dehumanization, oppression, abuse, and injustice faced by children in the justice system. If we believe every human has the capacity for and right to pursuit happiness, then that belief must be enacted in our endeavors, work, voting, and decisions. We cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering of another human being but must work toward reconciliation, love, and mercy in all that we do and stand against the senseless violence and abuse faced by confused, misguided children who have no understanding of what they have done wrong.
Burns, J. M. (2003). Transforming leadership: A new pursuit of happiness (Vol. 213). Grove Press.
Shmotkin, D. (2005). Happiness in the face of adversity: Reformulating the dynamic and modular bases of subjective well-being. Review Of General Psychology, 9(4), 291-325. doi:10.1037/1089-2618.104.22.1681
Stevenson, B. (2015). Just mercy: A story of justice and redemption. Spiegel & Grau.