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Pursuit of Happiness

Written by: Deb Sparrow
Published: October 2015

 “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.”- Thomas Jefferson, et al. 

How well do you know your Declaration of Independence? Most people can identify the language, but how much thought do you give to any historical documents from day to day? Are we all truly entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? The Declaration of Independence was beautifully written by some talented men, but do you really believe that the founding fathers were all sitting around talking about happiness? I’m certain that the original wording was one compromise after another, and maybe ‘happiness’ was a grudging acceptance from those who would have preferred ‘property’ or ‘self-determination.’ 

I know what you’re thinking. No, I do not have some deep-seated trauma that makes me disdainful of happiness. It’s just that I have never been quite sure if happiness is something to be pursued or if it is a choice that we all make. Is it truly possible to “be happy now” just by deciding to do so?  

Lately I find myself pondering not only this, but also the mysteries of the universe and the meaning of life. This includes enigmatic challenges from the world of work such as, what is it with humans that we are sometimes so blind to our own negative behaviors? Why are our dark corners so very dark sometimes? Last month I read Ralph Twombly’s article “Practice Breathing” and it gave me some hope. ( As I read it, I thought, "Oh, good. As soon as this Mercury in Retrograde thing is over, some of these otherwise really great and smart people will come to their senses, realize their destructive impact, and stop tromping all over other people’s happiness." I should have known better than to place my faith in an astrological phenomenon.  

As generally happens when I’m grappling with ‘the big stuff,’ I was feeling a little lost and in need of answers. People at work were starting to complain about 'happiness' and somehow linking personal happiness to the responsibilities of the employer instead of to themselves and their own choices. This piqued my curiosity. Granted, it didn’t take much, but my thought process went into high gear and has been there ever since.  

It's because I don't know the answer. Given that basic requirements are met for a safe and relatively pleasant work environment, meaningful work, some level of appreciation, and compensation that meets fundamental needs and then some, what responsibility does an employer bear for the happiness of those in its employ? After all, studies show that happy employees are more productive and good for business. And yet, in my view, happiness is a personal choice and a mindset. It isn't something that can be guaranteed as part of a great benefits package. 

Of course, work can be frustrating. We all have days when we wish we were doing something else, somewhere (anywhere!) else, and may sometimes feel less than valued. However, if someone is regularly frustrated and unhappy, to the point of creating negativity in the workplace, is it an unreasonable expectation to think that looking inward is really their best choice to create the desired change? 

Sometimes workplace values and vision are not a good fit with an individual's values and beliefs for what they want out of work. The choice is to stay and be miserable, or find something more fulfilling that promotes the well-being that we all want and need. My logical brain sees this clearly, and puzzles over the individual disconnect of those who want the employer to bear their unhappiness burden. Perhaps, I think, such individuals may not quite know what they want, or if they do, they are not willing to invest in the effort to go find it, or build it, so the easy path is to feel wronged and cast blame outwardly. 

I was thinking about this one night at home recently, remote in hand, bouncing around the 700 channels on TV, looking for something that would catch my interest. Most of us have a pattern of regular shows or sporting events. My fallback is usually ESPN for the latest games or sports updates. As I searched for something to divert my thoughts from other challenges, I stumbled upon the ESPN E:60 presentation of the story of Travis Roy. 

Maybe you know about Travis Roy. Twenty years ago, Travis was a young man from Maine living the dream as a Division 1 hockey player at Boston University. Eleven seconds into his first on-ice shift as a Terrier, Travis did what hockey players do and what earns them ice time. He checked another player in the corner, and hit his head on the boards as his momentum carried him forward. He never got up on his own again. From that point on, Travis's life changed dramatically from a handsome young hockey star in his physical prime to a completely dependent quadriplegic with no idea how to survive, let alone make a life. 

Twenty years later, the story is a short, inspiring tale of how this person’s life evolved from the first days of his catastrophic injury and how he learned to live his life with purpose. It is a powerful, emotional story about how we cannot always control our circumstances but we can control how we think. 

Sad? Sure. And yet, Travis Roy has chosen to be a visible symbol within the quadriplegic community, using his fame and talents to raise money for spinal cord research and giving hope to those in similar circumstances. It is tough to watch, and yet so humanly compelling. Watching him talk about the before and after of that day is heartbreaking, as is watching his dad on camera. His father speaks of him with such pride and love as his son evolved into so much more than a hockey player, and his impact has been far-reaching. 

The question I asked myself is how someone in his circumstances could ever be truly happy. The answer, of course, is individual choice. He has a choice every day. He can feel sorry for himself for his limitations, and be angry about his fate, or he can choose to make the best of his circumstances and make someone else's life better by giving what he can of himself. 

After considerable thought, I've decided that Travis Roy is a happy man. I also know someone who has fought the most courageous battle with lung cancer over the past two years, and I consider him to be a happy man. It's easy to be happy when you're winning the battle, right? Perhaps. But the battle is ongoing, with a maintenance regimen of medication and monthly scans for evidence of new tumors or suspicious growths. As difficult as that must be, I'm not sure I’ve ever met anyone with a stronger sense of gratitude and purpose. 

Gratitude and purpose. Maybe therein lies the answer, and those two things are the fundamental keys to happiness. So, is it the pursuit of happiness that's important, as our founding fathers seemed to believe, or, according to Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning, is it ultimately true that "it is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness"? Uh oh. Back to my own personal wrestling match with ‘the meaning of life' problem again. Not only am I overthinking happiness, but now I'm also trying too hard? Welcome to my life.  

Speaking of creating happiness, mine usually involves an idea and a book, so I’m now on the path of learning more about Viktor Frankl. He was a Jewish psychologist and neurologist who was transported to a Nazi concentration camp, along with his parents and his pregnant wife, in 1942. He alone survived. He spent his life studying the effects of mindset, choice, and meaning on individual human existence. 

I’m paying attention to people I see or interact with on a regular basis as I consider the happiness mystery. The truth as I see it is this: happiness is an inside job. It is a choice. If we choose to be happy today, at this moment, we are choosing to live fully. So many people think that happiness will come when they lose that annoying ten pounds, or get that big promotion, or start earning what they think they deserve. But it isn't the perfect body, or the money, or the corner office that delivers happiness. As Frankl says, happiness is derived from the search for meaning, and in the value of suffering, and ultimately in the responsibility to something greater than the self.

If you’re pursuing happiness, at home and in the workplace, the secrets are out: all you need is a fundamental sense of gratitude, a purpose, an awareness that suffering exists all around you, and the realization that you can only be truly happy if you are dedicated to something meaningful much greater than yourself.

“Remember happiness doesn't depend upon who you are and what you have. It depends solely on what you think." -Dale Carnegie

Thank you very much for reading. Best wishes for continued happiness. 


Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at