Pursuit of Happiness
*This is a transcript of a talk given at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Pittsfield, MA on Sunday May 20, 2007

Aristotle said that happiness is the only thing that humans desire for its own
sake. He observed that men sought riches, or honor, or health, not for their
own sake but in order to be happy.

It's interesting that our country's constitution bastardizes this concept:
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

An awful lot of people seem intent on pursuing happiness.
Practically all the things available to us in our society, material goods like
clothing, or electronics, cars, houses, even lawn furniture or lawn gnomes, tempt us with
the promise that what they have will make us happy once we have it too.

We compare what we have or don't have to what others have. We measure and
count, and keep score. And we so want to be happy!!! But all this activity
brings us no closer to happiness. As a matter of fact, even if we get some of
these things we want; or even all of these things, happiness slips away from us.

We may have gotten a "bounce" up in our happiness quotient when we bought that new
thing or landed that important job or found that winning lottery ticket. But it
doesn't last.

That's because it can't. The nature of this life is that all things are
temporary-everything passes away.

But you're not going to hear this at the mall or the corporate boardroom, or the
stockholders annual meeting, where the promise of happiness is held out like a
carrot, as soon as you buy whatever it is they're selling.

You get a donkey to pull a cart because it believes it can catch the carrot
dangling from the stick that the driver is holding.
Like that donkey, we have been fooled.
The truth is that we don't have to chase happiness like the donkey chases the
carrot. Happiness is right here, right now.
It's a matter of changing the way you look at things.
When you change the way you look at things, what you see also changes.

A few years ago there was a movie out called “American Beauty”-did any of you
see that film?
It really took on the myth of happiness and the American Dream.

The movie opens with a view of a bucolic looking town and, as the camera floats wistfully over its houses and streets, a narrator starts to talk about his life and it's clear that he's speaking from beyond
the grave-he's dead and he's telling us about the last year of his life.
As the story unfolds you learn that he married his high school sweetheart,
and that they have a teenage daughter. He's tried to climb the corporate ladder in
his career but he's hit his ceiling and he's stuck somewhere in the middle. His wife has a career in real estate and she's trying to climb her own ladder.

They've got the the McMansion and the fine cars, with perfect
landscaping and a formal dining room that hardly ever gets used because no one
has time to eat together. But from the outside everything looks great.

What is clear to you the viewer is that they are anything but happy. Finally the
husband, whose name is Lester, and played wonderfully by Kevin Spacey, gets
downsized out of a job that he's truly grown to hate.

At first he's depressed but then he comes to the conclusion that it's really
okay because his happiest days were when he was a teenager with no
responsibilities, other than working at a burger stand and smoking pot. So he
sets out to re-create this and actually gets a job running the drive-up window at the
local burger king. He also becomes obsessed with one of his daughter's high
school cheerleader friends. He begins to fantasize about her and believes if he
can seduce her, he'll be happy.

His wife is closing in on the million dollar sales club, and believes she'll be
happy as soon as she gets there. The daughter takes up a relationship with the
strange and depressed boy next door.

Everyone is desperately trying to be happy, with the exception of the teenage
daughter and the boy next door, who connect with each other through their
mutually depressed lives.

Anyway, there is a scene at the very end of this film that is so powerful, that
it takes your breath away-at least it did mine. Lester is all alone, the house
is empty and he's sitting in his kitchen at the table. By this time the
life that he and his wife had built up with all these things they've accumulated
has fallen apart.

So, he's sitting at the table and he's suddenly noticed a small framed picture
that's probably been on that table forever. But it's as if he's seeing it for the first time.
He reaches over and picks it up and begins to study it.
It's a picture of the 3 of them, back when their daughter was around 8 or so.
And, as he looks at this picture, you see his face slowly change. His eyes
become lighter, and seem to clear a bit, and he smiles a little.
And you the viewer can see that something remarkable is happening. In this
moment it's apparent that Lester realizes that he's had it all-he recognizes
the gift he's been given and his face breaks into a most wondrous, beautiful

And then you the viewer see how he dies. And his narration closes out the movie,
lifting you back to the bucolic view where you first heard his voice.

For me the power of that scene has stayed with me. In the last second of
Lester's life he understood true happiness and he understood that he had had
it. And in that last second of his life, when his eyes finally saw this, that
was enough! It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful.

T.S. Eliot wrote: And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.
And what matters to us change as well.

Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is within. Each one of us has this. No one
has to bestow it on us-we don't have to buy it-it's ours!
All that's needed is this: a shift in awareness and what we allow ourselves to see!

What we put our attention on expands in our life. What we notice will grow in
our awareness. If you doubt this, think about the last time you had something
annoying you when you were trying to sleep-like a barking dog, idling car on
the street, or dripping faucet .

This principle applies to the good things as well. Take a look around you and
notice the things that are good...and many of these are absolutely free and
here for you just waiting to be noticed.
Begin to pay attention. Say a silent thank you each time you notice something.

The Dalai Lama said in his book, “the Wisdom of Forgiveness” that all the
Buddha's and Bodhisattvas have discovered the way to attain the ultimate human
pursuit, which of course is happiness. They dedicate themselves to helping
others. He said it's not altruism that motivates them-it's happiness.

That's certainly a different route than driving to the mall, isn't it?
And there's no interest payments.

If you'd like to change the way you look at things, but aren't sure how to go
about it. Try this. Whatever it is you'd like to be able to see differently,
ask yourself “what if this is the last time I'll ever see it-them-her-him...?”

I spend a good deal of time with people who know they will be dying soon. In
the years I've been doing this I've never heard anyone of these people tell me
that they wished they'd hated more people, or gotten “even” more. I've never
heard one of them regret an act of forgiveness.

What I have heard are regrets over not forgiving sooner, of not being kinder,
more patient, of not taking more time to reach out to others. No one has told
me they should have watched fewer sunrises or sunsets. No one's told me that
they smiled too often or laughed too much.

What I've learned from all these people is that at the end of life, it's how you
have loved and been loved that measures the quality of life. That's the stuff of

And from what I've seen, those that have loved well, die well.

Sometimes, when people find out I work for Hospice they ask me if I find it
depressing. I tell them quite the opposite. The work I do reminds me to see
things differently. And that changes my life. Everyday.

There is nothing to pursue-
It is here already.
All we need to do is see in a new way.

The Tao says that when you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world
belongs to you.

That is what I saw in Kevin Spacey's character's eyes at the end of that film.
And that is what I would like to invite you to see in your own life every day.

Thank you