The Pursuit of Happiness

The Pursuit of Happiness

Here in the US of A, we celebrate Independence Day on July 4th. This is a holiday I usually associate with recreational activities: picnics, barbecues, outdoor recreation, fireworks, parades and lots of 50%-off sales. It’s a pretty mellow day.

The morning after, I was watching the news program CBS Sunday Morning, which ran a segment they called The Pursuit of Happiness. I realized then that there have been several threads of personal inquiry converging with respect to that pursuit: Happiness, Independence, and Community. Perhaps I’ve found my direction.

Happiness and Independence

Am I happy? I think I am, though there are certain frustrations I have. One of the big ones is the constant desire to be more productive, because I believe that producing more original content is my way to independence.

I used to think that the key to unlocking my productivity monster would be finding the right company. The right company would provide me with the right sense of mission, and so I’ve been open to finding the right opportunity. In fact, I was in the early stages of forming an business partnership with someone I know, until that person pointed out on one occasion that I didn’t sound entirely committed. Oh, how I argued, until I realized that he was right: deep down, I hated the idea of giving up my identity. It was a highly clarifying but disappointing moment. We didn’t pursue the relationship.

Since that moment of clarity, I’ve been more committed to independence as an actual path; I would say that my sense of mission is buoyed by the following statement of belief:

  • Happiness will come from creating yummy original content…
  • Which will create opportunities for me to be self-sufficient…
  • And therefore free me to continue to do the things that I enjoy…
  • Which apparently is being the author of said original content…

The lead-off story on CBS Sunday Morning connected the themes of Independence Day with Positive Psychology, a growing movement to scientifically understand the basis of well-being. Most Americans are familiar with the phrase Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness; it’s written right into our Declaration of Independence, and was signed by the original 13 colonies on July 4th, 1776. While “the pursuit of happiness” is one of our most basic rights, it’s entitlement without guarantee. Bummer!

I haven’t read the Declaration of Independence since grade school—and even then I probably wasn’t paying attention—so I was surprised by its relative brevity; rather than reproduce it in its entirety, I’ll paraphrase it:

  1. Ok, guys…there comes a time when a group of people must, due to difference of opinion and respect, dissolve their “political union” because it just isn’t working anymore.

  2. Here’s our opinion of what we think life is all about: we think all men are created equal, have certain unalienable rights such as Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Governments should exist solely to secure these rights, deriving their power to do so from the People, in a just manner.

  3. When–AHEM–some governments fail to do that, the People have the right to tear it down and build another one. Sure, this isn’t something one does lightly, but when the government refuses to deal with the issues responsibly, action by the People is necessary.

  4. Let’s name names: the present King of England has been a real jerk, and his form of “governance” is one-sided and disrespectful. Here’s a long list of things he’s done to aggravate us…see what we’re talking about? And yes, we’ve bent over backwards to work things out in a civilized manner, but he remains a capricious, greedy, and dangerous prick. We don’t think he’s going to change. And you know what? We’ve had it.

  5. So today, we’re announcing the world that we consider ourselves free and independent states. We will be friends again once this is resolved, but in the meantime: COME AND GET US!

Thomas Jefferson expressed the sentiment more eloquently, of course; you can find the text reproduced over on JWynia’s site in his 4th of July post. As I reviewed the text, it occured to me that the genuine pursuit of happiness takes guts and resolve. This quote from Frederick Douglass also came to mind:

“Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.”
I described the Pursuit of Happiness as being one of our basic entitlements, but without guarantee that we will receive it. It is, however, our responsibility to go out and get it, and the Declaration of Independence makes it clear that this is a right worth fighting for. When we make excuses about “timing”, or “convenience”, we are resigning ourselves to suffer an imposition of injustice, by the tyranny of our own inaction.

Independence and Community

As I said, I’ve been talking to people about various partnership / company scenarios. I spent many hours talking to people about what this meant to them, and the main arguments for starting a company looked something like this:
  • As individuals, we can achieve only so much. As a company, we will have skills that complement each other, which will as a group allow us to offer a more complete suite of services. We will also have the credibility of being a group, which combined with our talent can attract more interesting (and lucrative) projects.
  • It would be cool to work together with really talented people. People we can count on. People we actually like working with.
  • It would be cool to build a company that emphasized creative facilities: a great space to work in, a place to teach, etc.
These are all fine reasons to start a company, and because I’ve been interested in community recently it seemed to be a great “two-for-one” deal. Except…it didn’t feel right. As I talked with potential partners, I found I needed an awful lot of convincing. And if there’s anything that sucks the wind out of a partnership-in-the-making, it’s a lack of conviction from the person you’re trying to partner with. Everyone I talked to was super enthusiastic about their company-building dreams, but I tended to ask questions like:
  • What would be the company mission?
  • How will we know we’re fulfilling that mission?
  • Who is the majority owner? In the case of an equal partnership, how would we resolve inevitable conflict of interest?
  • How do you see me fitting into the operation? How do you see us working together? What do you see your role as?
And the doozy:
  • What is the advantage of being in a company versus doing what I am already doing now?
The latter really was the sticking point for me because I feel like I’m finally on a path that I’m enjoying: the path of authorship. I like being personally responsible for what I say and do. The questions I asked were good ones, but they really were indicators of doubt wrapped in the cloak of due diligence. And doubt of that nature is NOT something you can tolerate from a business partner, because that indicates a lack of commitment to the whole, which bleeds energy, which is STARTUP DEATH. But I digress…just by asking that last question, I elevated myself to the level of the proposed company, and this tends to have a dampening effect on people who are excited by the very notion of creating something larger than themselves. It’s probably not a bad question to ask, because when you’re starting up you need to be pretty damn sure of the reason and rationale behind the decision if you’re going to really sell it, but it’s a real party pooper. I like the idea of building companies, but I tend to frame the activity in terms of what’s important to me, and not so much “what can we make”. Here’s a list of six directives that I think apply to me:
  1. I want to work on my own stuff to create original properties. This is far and away more important to me than creating a company structure for the sake of having one.

  2. I want to establish a reputation as a designer / developer / writer whatever. And I want to earn it with my own hands, and be personally accountable for what I put out there. That’s how I think of authorship.

  3. I want to create and contribute to a community of independent producers. I could join up with a community, but I have specific ideas about what I’d like to see from that.

  4. I like creating sparks. For me, that means creating an empowering environment and positive energy, such that the “spark” occurs naturally. In other words, learning and teaching is important to me from the perspective of shared experience, not just for knowledge transfer.

  5. If I did create a company or organization, it would exist primarily to provide the scaffolding for personal achievement and development of the individuals, in support of 4.

  6. If I did create a company, it would have to be my company in that I would be the one to make the decisions. I am finally starting to accept this, and I’m also getting over the feeling that I have to apologize wanting things to be this way.


p>In a sense, this is my own Declaration of Independence.

Directive 6 is a completely new insight for me, and it’s really the first time I’ve seriously thought that I may want to create a company. I have been pursuing the first 5 directives for years and never really considered the option, thinking that I was not up to the task, or that it was just too much of a hassle. These days, though, I’m more comfortable with the idea, and I must admit that with a group I could get more done. It feels a tad egotistical to think this way, because we’re conditioned to think in terms of “team” and “democracy”, but look at it this way: would you want a group of people voting on how you personally choose and pursue your interests? Do you want your own interests and dreams to be interpreted by some “team” with its own agenda and politics? No sir, I don’t like it. The Pursuit of Happiness is, in my opinion, not about group consensus; it’s about recognizing that we’re all free to make our own decisions. The trick is figuring out that this is indeed within our reach, and then learning how to grasp.

So where does community fit into this? Isn’t the mindset I described above counter to the spirit of community?

I think I’ve just figured it out: my values as I’ve listed them here are completely oriented toward empowering individuals, not organizations. I like to cheer people on! Persevere! Face demons! I support and applaud your efforts 100%! I think myself as a traveller on the same road.

While I don’t know where this belief comes from, following through with it is incredibly important to me. It’s funny I couldn’t see this until I got called on my lack of commitment to the company idea. And now, I can see that this has been something of a recurring pattern when I have worked at other companies. With few exceptions, a company’s underlying value was your heart and the company are one. My energies, however, are directed toward empowering the individual so they can shake free of whatever preconceptions limit their potential; company structure and management often are the limit.

I recognize, of course, that insight doesn’t pay the bills. At least when one commits to a company, the company reciprocates with salary and benefits. This allows the individual to survive. This is not an automatic if one pursuits the path of freedom; think “Live Free or Die!” The Declaration of Independence, remember, was a declaration of war. If it had been a single colony declaring their independence, that would have been tantamount to declaring suicide. But when a community of like-minded individuals works together, the odds are significantly changed in their favor. So perhaps that’s what I’m looking for in a community: shared values, a willingness to take action, and a belief that it will be good for everyone in the end.

Community and Happiness

In studies on happiness, everyone who was very happy could point to a strong social network of friends and family. And for all the shaking of fists and declarations of independence, all I really want is to be happy. The two are related.

If I am going to pursue the formation of a company or be part of a community of like-minded thinkers, what are my expectations? On my freelancer / idea forum, this is the pertinent rule I post:

  • Don’t be lame. Contribute constructively. Be respectful of each other.

And then there are my basic life beliefs:

  • You can do anything, maybe badly, but that shouldn’t stop you. You will be surprised by what you can do, and where it will take you.
  • Keep yourself open to opportunity.
  • Treasure the good people around you. Avoid the toxic ones.

Those would be the operating principles of any community I am a part of.

The Pursuit of Happiness is Happiness?

CBS Sunday Morning’s segment ended with this observation:

Maybe Happiness is a journey, not a destination.

If that’s the case, then my mission must be learning how to make maps.


  1. Joan 18 years ago

    There are a lot of threads coming together in this piece, and it sounds like you are on to something!

  2. Jason Manheim 18 years ago

    Phenomenal. Directive 6 is a point we all hope and need to achieve whether in building a company or building a life. Perhaps the days are changing and one can begin to pay the bills with insightful clams. That would be a great discovery of New Land, wouldn’t it?

    <li>a fellow cartographer</li>

  3. Earl 18 years ago

    David, excellent post! I personally enjoy reading of others experiences and thoughts from their personal journeys. Human beings have always been explorers. In some cases it’s exploring new lands or looking to the stars for new worlds. Others look within to explore themselves and their place in human kind. I’m reminded of a paragraph from Eternal Echoes by John O’Donohue:

    “The human heart is never still.  There is a divine restlessness in each of us which creates a continual state of longing.  You are never quite at one with yourself, and the self is never fixed.  There are always new thoughts and experiences emerging in your life; some moments delight and surprise you, others bring you onto shaky ground.  On the outside, your body looks the same.  Your behavior, work, home, and circle of friends remain consistent and predictable.  Yet behind this outer facade, another life is going on in you.  The mind and heart are wanderers who are always tempted by new horizons.  Your life belongs in a visible, outer consistency; your inner life is nomadic.  Hegel says, “just this unrest that is the Self.”  Your longing frequently takes you on inner voyages that no one would ever guess.  Longing is the deepest and most ancient voice in the human soul. It is the secret source of all presence, and the driving force of all creativity and imagination: longing keeps the door open and calls toward us the gifts and blessings which our lives dream.”

    Like our hearts, if we stop our pursue of our dreams or happiness, maybe we would be as good as dead.

  4. TomL 18 years ago

    Very good.

    One thing struck me, though. If your company is yours and you make all the decisions then you can’t expect others in your company to dedicate themselves as though it were their own company, because it won’t be their company. They won’t buy into it if the only vision is your vision. They will sell you their time and skills for money but you won’t get their hearts and they will leave when offered more money.

    I’ve helped start both commercial enterprises and non-profits and the ones that succeeded were the ones with a shared vision, where everyone had a stake and knew the others were depending on him or her. Granted, someone has to be the leader and someone has to create the vision to be shared, but the organizations that were run as an extension of the boss’s personality usually failed. People were unwilling to make sacrifices for the benefit of an organization if they believed that they were simply hired help.

    On the other hand, the questions you are asking potential partners are exactly the right questions. A partnership is harder to hold together than a marriage, which has the advantage of biology.

  5. Senia 18 years ago

    Awesome six points in your own declaration of independence!

  6. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Joan: Thanks! I’m always onto something! :-)

    Jason: I love that analogy of finding or building new land. I was in NYC over the weekend and was marvelling at all the real estate that was built out of nothing, and how much revenue generation had occured because of that. To do the same with insight and community would be fantastical! Love the signoff as “cartographer” too… I might have to put that on my next business card! :-)

    Earl: That is a beautiful passage…thanks for quoting it, and finding the sense of longing in what I wrote. I hadn’t thought of that, but I certainly have felt it. I am feeling it right now.

    Tom: That’s an interesting point, the “my company” versus “their company”. My perspective on this is that in either case, the contract between boss and employee must be made clear and consistent. When something changes, the change must be made clear and reasonable. The leader is responsible for ensuring this occurs throughout the organization, through the selection of and training of her trusted lieutenants to ensure that this message is promoted throughout the organization. Clear reward, incentive, and recognition of achievement on both the personal and team contribution level are what employees buy into, not whether or not they have their own visions elevated to the same level of the leader. People who have that expectation either become bitter and learn to work the system for their benefit, or they leave (witness myself). Most people, I think, just want to feel they are heard, respected, and have an opportunity to make a contribution that is recognized and rewarded. They don’t necessarily need to have a vision, though if they are leading others they certainly need to be able to SPELL ONE OUT, in the same fashion as the leader or leading company principles (culture).

    I don’t have 25 years of research to back what I just said, so take it with a healthy dose of skepticism. It is, however, based on long-time personal reflection on the psychology of interactive game design as it has been applied to my various working experiences.

    Senia: Thanks!

  7. Jory Des Jardins 18 years ago


    I absolutely love watching your (undoubtedly frustrating but necessary) process of working it out. We really DO need to go through exercises like this to un-learn what we thought we knew about what we wanted, and to understand what we truly want. This post inspires me to explore what makes ME happy. Will have to write something up at Pause. Thanks so much for the inspiration, Dave!

  8. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Jory: You have NO IDEA how many times you’ve inspired me back when I started freelancing “seriously”, and somehow stumbled upon your Living Without a Net series. The humor and candor of those posts (heck, ALL the posts on Pause) helped me keep going, knowing that I wasn’t the only one asking the same questions. Incredibly inspiring. I’m so glad to be able to return the favor, in whatever way I may have. Thanks!!! :-)

  9. Scott 18 years ago


    Brilliantly written, as usual. I share many of your insights and I, too, have been on my quest (pursuit) of happiness, and what being happy means to me. Over the last year, I have reactivated my internal emotional guidance system and am working diligently on guiding my life by the way I feel and not so much by what I think; the heart verses head war rages on. When each of us follows our internal emotional guidance system, think of it as a biological and emotional GPS, we are allowing ourselves to come back into alignment with who we are when we came into this physical body. The Universe has great plans, abundance and bliss for all us in every area of our lives, but we have been too conditioned to think as society, our parents, friends, teachers, and significant others needed or wanted us to be. Because we learned, early on, that we should do what they say we should do so they could happy. Everybody needed you to perform or act in a certain way. And I say, F.U to all of them. Because the truth of the matter is that you can’t stand on your head in enough ways to make everyone happy or accommodate them all. But more importantly, and this is the real tragedy of it all, when you try to do all that accommodating you take yourself out of the equation and what matters most for you to be happy. You deserve to be happy and NOTHING is more important than your quest for joy. Joseph Campbell said it best when he uttered, “ Follow your bliss.” I believe those are some of the best words spoken in our history. Follow your bliss is a direct and emphatic truth to your spirit.

    You hit upon something here that is very important as a fundamental truth in regards to happiness and the pursuit thereof. The only one you need to consider in your quest for happiness is yourself. You discovered, and on your way to discovering more, that when you don’t listen to your internal emotional guidance system it sends you off running in circles and wondering what is wrong with you. When the fact of the matter is that nothing is wrong with you. You just haven’t been listening to what your spirit has been yelling at you. You need to leave everybody else out of the equation when it comes to getting happy. No one is responsible for your happiness and you are not responsible for anyone elses. Do so will only get you crosswinds to your own path—and only YOU know your path. I am learning more and more that it really comes down to this – being in a place where you emotionally tuned-in, tapped-in and turned-on to your own internal guidance system and you can look at anyone, at any point when challenged on your following your bliss, and in the most caring and emotionally expansive way say, “I know you are well meaning and you believe you know what is best for me or what would make me happy, but I don’t give a rip what you think. And while you seemingly know the path you are on for your journey to bliss, there are many paths and many journeys. And I have reactivated my internal guidance system and I no longer guide myself by the shoulds of the world or the way I am supposed to think, but by the way I feel, and any negative emotion I feel is my clear indicator that I am deviating from my path. And though it may seem to you that I am not on the RIGHT path, I am on the path that is aligned with who I am and where I want to go.” And when anyone can be at that point and in such alignment with who they are you’ll discover that you never needed to take any action in your journey, because you would have taken the emotional journey instead and your blissful happiness will natural unfold and be attracted into your experience.