Guest Op-Ed: Just Be Happy

When you hear about the experiences of parenthood, one role that never gets mentioned is the revisiting of elementary education as your children come of that age. My son is in fourth grade this year, which means that I am suddenly back in fourth grade and trying to remember what I learned over thirty years ago. While I had to pause a moment to remember how to divide fractions, I’ve relished the opportunity to revisit and help my son understand the basics of the revolutionary era.
While the Constitution is the rule book for our government, the Declaration is the soul of who we are. The reasoning for our great American experiment can be gleaned completely from a document of less than 1500 words. And, at the core, is one sentence that explains it all.

“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.” [sic]
Life and liberty are pretty universally understood, unless you have attorneys or scholars in a room. But the pursuit of happiness gets tricky. There may not be a term in the English language more subjective than happiness, and definitely no more elusive. What defines it? And how far can one go in its pursuit?

Each year, Gallup and the Boston University School of Public Health releases their well-being index for the nation, broken down all the way to the county level. While there is no scientific way to measure happiness, they look at such factors as employment, food access, community involvement, financial resources, etc. Unfortunately, our beloved Commonwealth does not typically fare well in these reports. This year, we rank number 47, with only Arkansas, West Virginia and Mississippi trailing us.

This year was not an outlier. Twice in the past decade, the 5th Congressional District of Kentucky, which lies in the east, has scored as the “least happy” district across the nation. But before those of us outside of the 5th start feeling cocky, the county breakdown shows that our entire state is not in a good place. In fact, Fayette County, the “happiest” county in Kentucky, falls short of the average county in most other states.

The issues our state faces though are bigger than we are as individuals. One of my favorite quotes comes from author Edward Everett Hale, “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”

The past year has been trying for us all in many ways. While I have been fortunate to not lose any family or friends to COVID, the family and friends of 550,000 Americans cannot say that. I try to remain cognizant of that fact and do not mean to ignore their grief at all. But one of the great silver linings of this dark cloud is it has allowed us the opportunity to become more introspective and think about who we want to be and what we want to do after this pandemic subsides.
By nature, I am competitive and ambitious. At times, these are not necessarily bad traits. I tend to set goals and move towards them, often simply competing with myself. More often than not, though, I realize having my eyes set forward means that I do not see what is close at hand. I have to consciously make an effort to count my many blessings, and name them one by one. It’s a work in progress, but I know that actions make habits and habits make character.

My wife recently introduced me to a podcast called The Happiness Lab, hosted by Dr. Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale. Dr. Santos delves into the science of happiness, but puts it on a level easy to understand. She illustrates why we may get jealous when seeing someone post pictures of a trip on social media, why we feel the need to overschedule and rush, why we do not feel a lasting sense of satisfaction, and much more. More than that, though, she offers guidance on how to fight the feelings that have become such cultural norms and find true happiness with who we are and where we are in our lives. I would highly recommend it, especially if you feel overwhelmed with life.

I think we often don’t get ourselves permission to be happy. We are fine with the pursuit of it, but we are like a dog chasing a car. We have no idea what we’re going to do with it if we ever meet that goal, so we just keep pursuing.
French poet Guillaume Apollinaire said it best, “Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.” Even if you’re dividing fractions.

Tommy Druen is a native of Metcalfe County, a graduate of Centre College in Danville, and currently resides in Georgetown with his wife and two children.