Posted by: Judy | October 18, 2016

Meme Debunking

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, which doesn’t mean I haven’t muttered under my breath about some meme posted on social media. Taking the time to drive this one from my head.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

What a gloomy thought. Like too many of these quotes, the source of the quote sucks the joy out of living. Men are learned and think they are wise.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy.”

Why not?

The Declaration of Independence declares unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Before happiness it was the right to property. In a world where only the rich and entitled owned property, this was huge. However, the Founding Fathers didn’t want slaves being lumped into that, so they changed it to happiness, with the understanding that a man free to be his own master pursues a happiness the world had never known.

Granted there’s no guarantee happiness will be found, but who does Mr. Emerson think he is that he is qualified to squash someone else’s pursuit of happiness? Who is he to belittle someone else’s dream?

Perhaps the problem lies in Emerson’s own definition of happiness. For myself, when I am useful, honorable, compassionate, and make a difference, I am happy.

So, Mr. Emerson, please take your crabby, short-sighted self and learn something from someone who’s considered below you because I’m not as educated: Happiness is self-made. It grows from the inside out.

It is possible to be useful, honorable, compassionate, and make a difference and not be happy, but it does not preclude being happy.

One needs to choose to be happy. It’s a daily choice, a moment by moment choice, and yes, sometimes it’s really, really hard, especially for those of us who were taught to not trust being happy. For those whose lives were made horrific and miserable by people who chose evil over good.

People who choose to not be useful, honorable, compassionate, and make a good difference in the world sow seeds of misery that reaches down through generations.

Countless abuse survivors have struggled in the pursuit of happiness. They fall down, a lot. They crawl, a lot. They want to give up, often, but something within them is stronger than whatever happened to them. They don’t see it, let alone recognize it. They deny themselves the right to pursue happiness, and yet, they hold onto hope, no matter how weak.

So, Mr. Emerson, you are wrong.

The misunderstanding often arises when I forget what my true definition of happiness is: Happiness is being at peace with myself, playing with the dog, chatting with my sister and friends, writing what I love, crying over bits of story I can’t believe I wrote, a yummy croissant and hot chocolate, a gentle rain, roses blooming, meeting a deadline, a sense God is near, becoming a better person, standing up for myself…

You see, Mr. Emerson, you think far too small. My possibilities are limitless.




  1. I just did a quick Google of this quote to read more context for the essay, and apparently there is controversy about whether Emerson actually wrote this or not. Still investigating…

    • Oh, but to be clear, it’s definitely a platitude that’s out there. An annoying one for sure.

    • Sigh. I only did a quick check. So maddening. Maybe what’s sadder is that someone felt the need to create the quote and, to give it credibility, they attached a well-known person’s name. Thank you. And yes, those platitudes that make wanting to be happy a sin are annoying. I’m interested in what you find. Thanks, Judith. 🙂

      • My memory of Emerson from high school is sketchy at best, but I thought the quote sounded incongruous of a guy who wrote an essay called “Self-reliance”. 🙂

        • Sadly, it still isn’t unusual for many people to believe that seeking happiness is a sin. It was fun learning he’d been an early teen at the time of Waterloo. 😉

          • It is sad. Some people make an art out of being miserable.

            • Yep, and are proud at excelling. :-/

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