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Those of us living in the United States have enshrined in our founding documents the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, a concept that has older roots in European philosophers such as John Locke.  These documents, of course, provide not the slightest bit of instruction about how to embark upon this pursuit, wisely leaving this conundrum to the individual and the communities to which he or she belongs.

There are two ways to pursue happiness.  One is external and one is internal.  They do not necessarily lie in conflict with each other, but I believe one of them deserves preeminence if the other is to succeed.

In the external pursuit, we try to get the job we'd love, travel to distant lands we dream of, eat the foods we find most delicious, accumulate all our favorite songs and the latest and most advanced electronic gadgets we can use to play them, pursue greater status in our communities and elicit the attention and admiration of others.
On a certain level we know that this alone doesn't work.  We've engraved this understanding into our collective consciousness with the saying “money doesn't buy happiness.”  My grandfather used to turn his computer on and take a walk while it would boot up.  In my generation, we get upset if Firefox takes three extra seconds to start or if our IPhone goes out of service for a few minutes.  Having more tends to make us expect more, and our patience and gratitude drown and suffocate in these expectations.
In the internal pursuit, we seek patience, gratitude, and contentment.  If things seem bad, we try to be thankful that they are not worse.  If we practice this pursuit with rigor, we may even be thankful that we had the opportunity to learn a higher standard of patience.
None of this means we cannot also pursue the job we'd love to have, the place we'd love to live in, or the people we'd love to love.  In fact, practicing the internal pursuit can allow us to practice the external pursuit with a clearer mind, and with joy present in our lives even before we achieve our goals.  It can help us be happy at each step of the pursuit, and protect us from despair if and when we lose what we've gained, which can happen to any of us at any moment.
In “Addiction to Noise and Stimulation (A Brief Thought About Life),” I suggested that many of us use various forms of external stimulation to distract us from the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that lie within.  Temporarily and gently fasting from these types of stimulation — whether auditory, gustatory, olfactory, visual, or sensory — can help us face the things that lie inside of us, learn more about ourselves, and improve ourselves.  This can help us turn from the external pursuit of happiness to the internal pursuit of happiness.

I say “gently” fasting because removing a crutch forcefully can cause great harm.  I know a wonderful older man with an injured knee who needs to use a walker.  He loves to swim, but now he walks in the pool because it's the one place he can walk without his walker, and because doing this is the closest he can come to swimming.  This is a wise approach wherein he gently, but not forcefully, removes the crutch he relies on.

We might help someone recovering from an injury walk by removing her crutch and letting her hold onto us for support, but if we walked up to a cripple, knocked his crutch to the ground and said “I now command thee, walk, ye of little will,” we certainly wouldn't be helping anyone.

I say “temporarily,” because if we were never to take any joy out of the world around us, living in it would be pointless.

Humans have realized this for thousands of years, and this realization has spawned many ascetic traditions.  Quite frequently, ascetics of these traditions have foolhardily sought extreme forms of self-denial and then realized that a “middle road” proved superior.  We find this theme in the life of Buddha, for example, and we find it in the lives of the Fathers of the Christian Church.

John Cassian, venerated as a saint in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal churches, studied under the Fathers of the Egyptian desert in the fourth century, and brought the wisdom he learned there to the West.  His spiritual pursuits also took him to Bethlehem and Constantinople.  His writings were especially commended in the Rule of St. Benedict.

In the Institutes, which he composed at the request of Saint Castor of France, he described the futility of seeking external peace without first cultivating internal peace.

Fleeing to the desert, his new-found solitude brought him only the illusion of peace.  There he not only deprived himself of many external crutches, but he also removed all his external challenges.  If any of us were to flee to a cabin in the mountains to find peace, we might forgo our televisions, but we would also remove all of the painful noise, expectations, and burdens that other people place on us.  This may be therapeutic, but the peace it brings us may be illusory.

It was not too long before he found himself getting angry at the desert grasses for being too thick or too thin, with pieces of wood when he wished to cut them quickly and could not, and with flint, when he was in a hurry to light a fire but failed.  “So all-embracing was my anger,” he wrote, “that it was aroused even against inanimate objects.”

He thus realized that other people were not the cause of his anger, nor leaves, nor pieces of wood.  He was the cause of his own anger.  In realizing this, he realized that he needed to turn inward to eradicate that anger in order to obtain true peace.

One can debate whether those who have retreated to the deserts or forests to find solitude have ever learned anything about God, as they claimed.  In fact, these men and women had claimed that theology was exactly what they were practicing, a term that would much later be redefined as the logical exposition of things related to God.

But I do not think one can deny that they at least learned something about the human condition.  Indeed, while the world's spiritual traditions have many distinguishing features, they also have many similarities, and I believe many of the commonalities reflect the simple fact all of these traditions had the same raw material to work with — human beings.

The anthropologists of today study the breadth of human cultures and in some rare cases may penetrate into the depths of these cultures.  The ancient anthropologists penetrated into the depths of deserts and forests so they could penetrate more deeply into their own human person.  In doing so, they learned a thing or two about psychology.

These insights are important for any of us seeking health, because anger and unhappiness will both bring bad health as quickly as any bad diet will.  As Chris Kresser has written, we all need to work on our weakest link.

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  1. A very discerning and intuitive post. I like it. Happiness does have a lot of factor which is both internal and external. It is a very common pursuit of any person, that is, happiness since it would mean and almost equivalent to a healthy lifestyle.

  2. Hi Jason,

    First, I think it is evident from context that what James means by "faith" there is "belief." Nevertheless, even in a more holistic sense where many early Christian writers would define faith as an all-embracing relationship with God, prayer is still something you do. It is itself a work. Not everyone should do every work (for example see 1 Corinthians 12:28-32). Certainly one would be a hypocrite if someone asked for help, and one prayed for them without materially helping them, but this does not mean that everyone's calling is to perform some particular type of help. Moreover, someone can spend time in solitude and then retreat from solitude, as I indicated in my post when I suggested gentle and temporary fasting. I'm sure you can find plenty of people in the Bible — like Jesus, for example — who spent time in solitude, and also materially helped people at other times. One might suggest even that taking specks out of people's eyes is a valuable work and that it might take some solitude to get the log out of one's own eye first.

    In any case, if the calling is internal, it's probably not up to you or I to judge what other people should be doing.

    I think we are mostly in agreement that doing good things within the world around us is very good. That's why I write this blog. Incidentally, I do not live in the desert. As might have imagined from some of my nutritional writings, I don't live in the dessert either. 🙂


  3. Thank you for clarifying. As to the unclarity about why someone who believes in God would frown on that kind of prayer, here's why. James 2:14-26 'Faith without works/deeds is dead'. While it's completely true that we should have joy in the effort (especially since the effort is all that is up to us and the outcome is up to God). Although I am not sure that there are many people who would greet not achieving their goal with the same joy as had they achieved it (even though both outcomes are from God and they did their part by doing the effort that God wants). Back to the issue – 'Faith without deeds is dead' – I don't believe that God wants this person to just pray. Could they not pray and do works together? And, more importantly and to the point at hand, would their prayers not find more favor with God if they coupled them with works/deeds? I think so; and I could give numerous examples from the Bible and Scripture that would back that up. The most acceptable and thus effective prayers are those coupled with actions, because this is what God wants. God put them in the world to do, not just to pray; and preferably to do and pray. The holy people in the Bible and Scriptures – did they only pray that people would do good, be helped…, or did they go out and couple it with works.

  4. Responses to Aaron, Jim, Lola, Scott, Daniel, Jason, Jane, and Lisa Elizabeth.

    Hi Aaron, I agree with you that there is a human drive for achievement, and I think as with anything in human nature you can see both positive and negative manifestations, which is why it is adaptive for humans to have moral, ethical, and spiritual systems that attempt to channel those natural drives into beneficial directions.

    Dana, I think that's a little simplistic, but you have some good points and thank you for your input.

    Jim, I agree with you that nutrition plays a critical role in mental health, and my personal experience is proof of that. There are, however, a great many other factors that contribute to mental health, and to reduce anger down just to nutrition I think is too simplistic.

    I do not think Cassian's views on the whole — which ultimately conclude that living an hermetic life in the desert if one first roots
    out anger and other negative passions from within oneself — is consistent with the idea that anger in the desert is caused by malnutrition.

    Hi Lola, you're welcome. Thank you for your appreciation.

    Scott, I consider it a 'founding document' because it was critical to the formation of the nation. I agree it isn't foundational to the current Constitution and has no role in restricting or endowing our current institutions with any powers. I'm glad you're enjoying these posts.

    Daniel, thanks for posting that.

    Hi Jason,

    I'm not sure we're disagreeing on much besides a little semantics. If you feel called to do something, I think that call comes from inside, and one needs to truly turn inwards to discern what one is called to do, but you are right that you then execute many external actions to fulfill the call. The question is, where is your treasure? Is it the proper execution, everything falling into place perfectly, everything being achieved, that brings you joy? Or is it in doing everything in your power to act on the inner calling, and accepting whatever occurs as a result, and whatever circumstances one must act within, with acceptance, patience, and gratitude? I think your treasure, and your heart, should be in the latter even as you try to produce the former. This is what I meant by saying that these pursuits are not mutually exclusive but the inner pursuit must take preeminence. Your treasure, and your heart, should be in the latter even as you try to produce the former.

    I never suggested there was any dichotomy between "bad" and "good" in this case. I also never meant to suggest that we find some kind of mathematic balance beteween appropriate doses of internal and external.

    I also never meant to suggest that there was something better about hermetic solitude than being with others, but in all honesty you make numerous references to your belief in God, and if you believe in God and and human interaction with God than I do not see why you wouldn't accept the clear corrolary, that if someone flees into the forrest or into the dessert or finds solitude on top of some mountain or great pillar and prays for the world and everyone in it, that this is very useful to everyone being prayed for. But that is sort of besides the point because I wasn't trying to suggest there is any moral, ethical, or spirtual superiority attached to any kind of "ratio" between internal and external pursuits.

    I was trying to say simply that if one makes a real effort to patiently endure all things with joy, that this is a far superior, robust, and genuine joy compared to that achieved by trying to accumulate all one ever wanted.

    Jane, ha!

    Lisa Elizabeth, yes.

  5. I once did a typo on 'symptoms' and it turned into 'wymptoms'. I thought omigod, that's what's wrong with me. I'm a wymp and I've got wymptoms.

  6. Wow I got called out on my "dessert" typos once and thought I fixed them, but left one behind. I think the Desert Fathers would say this was an exercise in humility. 🙂

    I'll respond to the other comments soon when I have some time.


  7. Very nice and insightful. I only have one slight thing that I see here that's not exactly clear. You assert a dichotomy of external and internal. However, it is not necessarily external or internal in all cases. For instance, you listed a job and travel to distant lands. These can be (and, in reality, in most cases are) external; but that is not necessarily true of all cases. For example, a person may want to pursue what they feel they are called to do or what they are passionate about – That is an internal pursuit which must be pursued externally in order to be actualized. Or let's take the 'traveling to distant lands' example you gave. True, this is an external (and usually completely external). However, something like going into nature or lets say for example experiencing the majesty of the Grand Canyon or some other work of creation – can be just as much or even more of an internal pursuit than a pure internal pursuit could achieve. In that case the external is actually the conduit to an internal growth or experience. I don't think of these things as having a dichotomous relationship, where external automatically = bad and internal always = good ( and I see that in what you wrote about frowning on the ascetic life). However, I think where I differ with you is that you seem to be looking at it from a perspective where the dose makes the poison (or cure) and if it's too much external than it's bad and too much internal – bad. And while I agree that the Golden Mean approach is generally the rule to go by and that extremes are generally not the way to go. On all this we agree. However, where we differ is that I would argue that, when looked at and analyzed on a deeper level, external and internal are actually the same thing; they are given to us by God. Both of them can be either good or bad depending on how we use or express them. when looked at through this prism it becomes clear that external can be good if it is used for good purposes and internal can be bad if it is used as a way to escape the world or if it causes one to not produce good into the world through avoidance i.e. sitting on a mountaintop having achieved 'enlightenment' – what good is it if you don't help others with it or enlighten the world (probably to some good to the person and his soul; however, not anywhere near as much good as was meant to be done by then utilizing the external methods). So in my view external and internal are really just the same thing. That is, they are God given qualities which we are supposed to use in various ways depending on the circumstance, with the purpose of pursuing the good. This can mean different degrees of internal or external or, external as internal, or internal as external or, only internal, or only external. But in this way of looking at it, external is not bad and internal is not good, rather they are both good and bad in their proper or improper times and circumstances – A time for…a time for… (ecclesiastes, which speaks of the futility of the physical world and its ultimate meaning as a vehicle for the spiritual or for achieving spiritual elevations and achievements), so that what you're calling external and internal are actually both God given conduits of the physical created world which must be utilized correctly in order to actualize the potential of the spiritual created world and fulfill their purpose; anyways, all the best.

  8. Anonymous, there has been romanticization of native life at least since Rousseau's "Noble Savage". The truth of savage life, however, is quite different from the excited imaginings of some westerners. That the decimation of the Natives was a conspiracy to prevent Americans from finding the joys of savage life is fanciful lunacy. On the contrary, the decimation of the Natives was the result of an advancing and rapidly expanding civilization which desired to exploit the vast natural resources of an open continent.

  9. When I flee to the "dessert," the pleasure isn't illusory. I love ice cream, especially.

    BTW I think grain agriculture causes people's minds to become unhappy. Maybe all those carbs deplete the adrenals and cause anxiety disorder?

    Jeff doesn't realize that when Europeans started the genocide against the Native Americans, one of the reasons behind it, according to Thomas Cowan quoting someone who quoted Ben Franklin, was to make sure there was nothing for people to escape from colonial Americans life TO. In other words, there were a lot more Europeans willing to adopt the Native American way of life than Natives willing to adopt the Colonial life style. Even when they were bribed!

    The Native Americans had to be exterminated, Ben Franklin reportedly opined, so nobody would know there was another way to live.

  10. Alas, the "pursuit of happiness" is in the Declaration of Independence which is not a "founding document" inasmuch as it has no legal standing. Still, though, I'm enjoying this chain of posts. Thanks.

  11. Dana Seilhan, many American Indians died precisely because of the primitive state of medical knowledge among American Indians. The Europeans by this point had at least developed a primitive form of vaccination. Your idyllic view of primitive life is naive at best and a grotesque distortion at worst. The truth is, they often warred and enslaved, died frequently from injury and subsequent infection, and starved when food was unavailable. I doubt very much an Indian dying of gangrene would speak about the joys of primitive life.

    This speaks only to the material benefit of civilization; there are, of course, the philosophical, political, religious, and aesthetic developments which come when people develop concerns beyond mere survival.

  12. If I were John Cassian in the desert, and I found myself angry at a piece of wood, I would think that my nutrition was poor.

  13. Aaron, what is this "we"? Not every culture has built a civilization. Indeed, many of them have looked at us civilized folk with something very akin to stupefied amazement that we so willingly throw away our happiness in return for things.

    Just looking at the historical record of what remained of the uncivilized American Indian cultures in contact with us (before we civilized them by force) is instructive. They thought we were *nuts.*

    Let's not make the mistake of assuming that the civilized represent all of humanity–because we don't, and never have.

  14. "Having more tends to make us expect more, and our patience and gratitude drown and suffocate in these expectations."

    Out of context, but, what always struck me: This has to be human nature. If we would be content with what we have by default, we wouldn't have built civilizations, we wouldn't have explored stuff and invented other stuff.

  15. Hi TX,

    Awesome, thanks for commenting. I agree with you, and I do think the "external pursuit" I was speaking of is more of a degenerate hedonism if it isn't kept in moderation by the internal pursuit, which is a form of self-improvement.


  16. "My grandfather used to turn his computer on and take a walk while it would boot up."

    I still do that. Except that I don't take a walk; I come into my office, turn the PC on, and then go tend to some other errands. Computers have suffered from the "bigger nail" syndrome.

    But what prompted me to comment is the subtle change over the centuries in the meaning of the phrase "pursuit of happiness." In the vernacular of the Founders, this meant that a person had the right to improve his situation by application of his own resources, labor, and ideas. It was more of a "self-improvement" mantra than some abstract notion of hedonism, to which it seems to have currently devolved.

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