Practicing the Pursuit of Happiness

We can be certain that the thing we call “happiness” exists. And yet, not unlike love and thankfulness, it’s difficult to define precisely what it is and from whence it comes. While the pursuit of happiness is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, and people spend their entire lives seeking it, it defies easy measurement and quantification and is not always correlated with other “quality of life” indicators such as income, health, and education.

The subject has made its way into a series of 16 short films produced by acclaimed filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg, whose TEDx talk on gratitude inspired the project.

The project, called Gratitude Revealed, is described as an “unprecedented journey into the science, mystery and pursuit of the building blocks of gratitude.” It hopes to provide “a proven pathway back from the disconnection we feel in our lives.” Schwartzberg’s venture has received accolades from none other than the queen of daytime television, Oprah Winfrey, who has featured it on her website.

Installment number 8 in the series explores the concept of happiness from the eyes of Dr. Christine Carter, Senior Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and author of The Sweet Spot (2015) and Raising Happiness (2011).

As Carter frames it, happiness isn’t activated by one’s context or condition, but originates more from how one responds. What if happiness, in other words, is not circumstantial but volitional? What if happiness is up to us? As she poses the question: “How is happiness a skill, or set of skills, that we can practice?”

Gratitude, Carter explains, is more common in conditions of scarcity than abundance, simply because people are more likely to appreciate that which they lack or do not expect. She believes developing the skills of happiness and gratitude can help individuals “not just cope with life’s difficulties, but really embrace those difficulties.”

Circumstances are often beyond our control. The way in which we respond to those circumstances is not. If Carter is right, then practicing the essential skills of gratitude trains the musculature of happiness. It may be impossible to develop those skills apart from the provision of certain fundamental needs—Maslow’s hierarchy comes to mind. But if happiness can be learned, if it can be cultivated through persistent practice, that’s reason to be grateful indeed.


The editorial staff of ORBITER magazine humbly pursues life's Big Questions, illuminating the human condition and our place in the universe.