As Americans, we feel entitled to happiness, or at least to its pursuit, by none other than the Almighty:
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. – The Declaration of Independence
Given our hunger for happiness, why are so few people satisfied? In the classic The Varieties of Religious Experiences, William James suggests two reasons. The first is unrealistic expectations:
Take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world, and in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure. Either his ideals in the line of his achievements are pitched far higher than the achievements themselves, or else he has secret ideals of which the world knows nothing, and in regard to which he inwardly knows himself to be found wanting. – Lectures VI and VII, The Sick Soul
The second reason happiness is so evasive is because it is ground up in the gears of personal progress:
Now in all of us … does the normal evolution of character chiefly consist in the straightening out and unifying of the inner self. The higher and the lower feelings, the useful and the erring impulses, begin by being a comparative chaos within us—they must end by forming a stable system of functions in right subordination. Unhappiness is apt to characterize the period of order-making and struggle. – Lecture VIII, The Divided Self, and the Process of its Unification
People who find a system of order and source of truth enjoy a measure of stability and security. Conversely, those who question, tinker with, or abandon a belief system often forfeit their sense of certainty and well being.
Remember playing on the monkey bars as a kid? You felt safe when you had a secure perch, but frightened when the metal was wet and slippery, or when you were free-swinging between bars.
Stretching for a new hand-hold on truth is not conducive to happiness, but some of us just can’t sit still.
“God offers to every mind its choice
between truth and repose.
Take which you please—
you can never have both.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson