The Pursuit of Happiness

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;

Round and round they sped.

I was disturbed at this;

I accosted the man.

“It is futile,” I said,

“You can never — “

“You lie,” he cried,

And ran on.

 —Stephen Crane, 1905

The Declaration of Independence proclaims to be among the inalienable rights of mankind “the pursuit of happiness.” Not happiness, but its pursuit. Why is that? Does not everyone have the right to be happy? One could argue that yes, we all have the right to happiness. However in wording the Declaration so, our founding fathers were acknowledging one of the paradoxes of human nature: that we live to pursue a doomed cause; we are a race of tragic heroes. Happiness is a dream, but life is the pursuit of that dream. Our humanity stems from the pursuit of happiness, happiness which we stolidly refuse to believe does not exist, and, like the man in Stephen Crane’s poem, we continue running round and round in circles in vain pursuit of our horizons, ignoring those cynics tired of their humanity who attempt to point out the futility of it all. In his novel The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald lauds those of us who refuse to give up our faith in dreams, but pursue them instead, through the titular character, Jay Gatsby. Gatsby himself epitomizes Man trying, Man pursuing happiness, and though the actions he undertakes in this pursuit are not altogether laudable, his vitality and “infinite capacity for hope” definitely are. Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, describes Gatsby’s (and humanity’s) belief in the dream of fulfillment saying, “[The orgastic future] eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—” (Fitzgerald 180). Fitzgerald leaves the reader with the hope of mankind: tomorrow, if I am a little bit better, a little bit stronger, I will be able to achieve my goal. We know deep down that this is not true, that this is never true, that we can never attain our happiness, but we do not want to know it. Life is pursuit and we must have something to pursue if we are to avoid joining the ranks of the Buchanans of the world. However, a question still remains: given that life is pursuit, and happiness the general dream, how exactly does one pursue it?

Gatsby’s answer to this question is probably one of the most common solutions given it. In the novel, Gatsby began his life James Gatz, the son of a poor North Dakotan farming family who, nonetheless, had high aspirations for himself. Gatsby first got a taste of the wealthy life when he met copper mogul Dan Cody and began to work for him under the name Jay Gatsby. Following Cody’s death, Gatsby (having liked the small taste of extravagance he’d gotten) decided to make something of himself in the world and went East where he ended up joining up to serve in World War I. At this point, Gatsby met Daisy Fay (who represented to him all the glamour and excess of old money and youth) and for a brief moment the summer before he went to war, Gatsby was happy. And so it makes sense that, returning penniless from the brutalities of war, Gatsby should latch onto that last golden moment as a representation of pure happiness and devote his life and energy to the pursuit of the now-married Daisy. However, Gatsby’s pursuit, though to be admired for its vigor, is not noble. In Gatsby’s mind, the path to the attainment of his dream is lined with fat checks and large houses (attained by whatever means possible) and so he sets about filling the emptiness inside of him full of material wealth with which to impress Daisy so that he might regain the happiness, the purity, the innocence, and the love that he had for that one moment in his past. However, he remains as empty as he was before he owned the swimming pool he never uses as demonstrated by his behavior following the death of Mrs. Wilson by Daisy’s hand. Gatsby asks Nick whether or not “she” was killed and upon Nick’s affirmative reply, Gatsby says: “I thought so; I told Daisy I thought so. It’s better that the shock should come all at once. She stood it pretty well.” Nick is disgusted by this comment, observing that Gatsby “spoke as if Daisy’s reaction was the only thing that mattered” (Fitzgerald 143). Gatsby is incapable of recognizing the import of the human life that has just been extinguished. All he can think about is his fixation with Daisy, that is his only reaction to Mrs. Wilson’s death. He is completely empty, devoid of feeling.

In this way, Gatsby’s pursuit, though admirable, is as fake as the rest of him. He is an example of the “modern man” whose strivings are hollow for they value surface over substance, which Fitzgerald hints at with his descriptions of Gatsby’s empty house (which contains a library full of books without content) and the conversations throughout the book (most of which are for show, having little or no actual meaning and are littered with phrases such as Gatsby’s artificial “old sport”). It is this “modern man” who has lost his foundations in the past and has come to value surface over substance that T.S. Eliot rails against in his poem “The Hollow Men.” Eliot decries this loss of substance in the lines “We are the hollow men/ We are the stuffed men” (Eliot 8-9), denoting the hollow men like Gatsby who, lacking proper emotion and suffering from fears of inadequacy, have separated themselves from their roots and stuffed themselves full of material objects, ensuring their continued hollowness. Eliot’s poem serves to encapsulate Gatsby perfectly in those two lines while also commenting on the tendency of people to think as Gatsby does.

Whatever society and mass media may make us think, Gatsby is not an anomaly in lacking fulfillment and happiness despite material wealth. Many people believe, like Gatsby did from the time he was still James Gatz, that wealth will bring happiness. However, this is, too often, the opposite of the truth. For most, Gatsby’s case is somewhat hard to identify with simply because his swift accumulation of such fabulous wealth is a bit of an anomaly in and of itself. However, it is not the amount, but rather the faith in materials that matters. In his short story “Accountant,” Ethan Canin tells the story of a thoroughly average middle class accountant who, because he measures his life in terms of personal wealth and sees material goods as the way to happiness, ends up living unhappily for the sole reason that he cannot refrain from comparing his material wealth to that of a boyhood friend. This accountant has no reason to be unhappy: he has a wife and three kids, a good job, a good house, but he remains unsatisfied because he cannot see life any other way than through a screen of numbers declaring the value (or rather lack thereof) of his achievements. Like Gatsby, the accountant equates happiness with monetary and material gain and as a result he is never able to achieve real happiness. The accountant, rather like Gatsby, sees material wealth and success as a way to fill up the void within him created by feelings of inadequacy, exacerbated by the comparison to his now millionaire boyhood chum. The main difference between the accountant and Gatsby exists in Gatsby’s extreme vitality, which the accountant lacks, pursuing material wealth perhaps less flamboyantly than Gatsby, but just as longingly. While we may judge the accountant less for his faith in numbers and material success than we do Gatsby for his obsession with material gain (though this may simply be a result of scale) it is in fact harder to like the accountant than it is Gatsby, despite Gatsby’s shortcomings.

However, both the cases of Gatsby and the accountant did not have to turn out the way they did. There is a law in psychology called the Yerkes-Dodson Law which demonstrates the correlation between intensity of motivation (and therefore the amount of effort) and the performance of the person being motivated (Brown, Herrnstein 106-107). As it turns out, “trying too hard” isn’t just a phrase, but a scientific principal and it is entirely possible. If one were to create a visual representation of the Yerkes-Dodson Law on a graph with intensity of motivation along the x-axis and level of performance along the y-axis, one would end up with a graph looking something like a rolling hill, not the upward tending line that most people would expect. Usually, people think that the greater your motivation and the harder you try, the better your performance will be. However according to Yerkes and Dodson (who performed many tests on mice, rats, and people in the early twentieth century) this is only true to a certain midway point, after which “too much effort” causes the performance to level off and then decline. From this, it can be concluded that had Gatsby perhaps not tried as hard as he did to pursue his dream, he might have been happier. Had he moderated himself and occupied himself with his present rather than attempting the impossible of recreating his past and had he not pursued material wealth so vigorously, he might have been able to come much closer to happiness rather then ending up way out at the right side of the Yerkes-Dodson curve.

Perhaps the furthest one could get from Gatsby’s method of pursuing happiness is the philosophy of transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau believed that the only way to achieve happiness and fulfillment was to strip life down to its essentials, removing all the excess. In his book Walden, Thoreau described his experiences living alone for two years on Walden Pond, almost completely self-sufficient, and possessing no more than he absolutely needed. Thoreau explained his purpose in going to live in the woods saying “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what they had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (Thoreau 96-97/2). This sentiment sums up his approach to the question of the pursuit of happiness: one should live spartanly, removing all unnecessary things so that there will be no distractions posed by the modern world to interfere with one’s relationship with God or prevent one from living life as it ought to be lived. Thoreau believed that in this philosophy, he had found the answer to the pursuit of happiness. His two years spent at Walden were the happiest of his life and, recalling them later in Walden, he relates them as being near perfect. Throughout most of the book, he exhibits a pure ecstasy and contentedness with life, finding beauty and wonder even in the most gruesome of sites as in his description of a dead horse in the lane between Walden and Concord. “There was a dead horse in the path to my house,” Thoreau relates, “which compelled me sometimes to go out of my way, but the assurance it gave me of the strong appetite and inviolable health of nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another” (Thoreau 318). Perhaps not the prettiest sentiment, but there is an obvious joy at being alive conveyed which is lacking in much of his other work. As a matter of fact, many of those who knew and admired him found him misanthropic—something which does not come across hardly at all in Walden. Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote of Thoreau in a letter “He despises the world, and all that it has to offer. . . . he is not an agreeable person, and in his presence one feels ashamed of having any money, or a house to live in, or so much as two coats to wear, or having written a book that the public will read” (Furius 36). None of what Hawthorne describes appears in Walden. Instead, Thoreau’s love for the world is apparent when he speaks of the dawn: “Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself” (Thoreau 95/2).

Based on Walden, it seems that Thoreau has achieved happiness and fulfillment, or at least the closest it is possible to get, through his method of stripping away the excess. His way of pursuing happiness was certainly more effective than Gatsby’s, however it remains slightly extreme. Thoreau only stayed at Walden for two years before moving back in with his mother and sister, with whom he lived all his life save for those two years. Why would he not stay in the woods if he had attained happiness and autonomy? Was he too much of a perfectionist to be satisfied by getting so close to the goal but being unable to achieve it? Was it simply too hard to accept the impossibility of perfection? In the end did he turn out to be even a little bit too extreme and, like Gatsby, did he strive too hard for perfection, compromising his performance? Whatever the reason, the dichotomy between Thoreau’s love of nature and his hate for modern society did exist. Much of the basis for his philosophy of stripping away the excess was based on his hatred for modern conveniences, such as newspapers and telegraphs. And for his happiness to have some foundation in the hatred of these things is contradictory. Had Thoreau moderated his ideas only slightly to encompass the changing times rather than resist them futilely, he might have achieved complete happiness, for real happiness stems from contentment with ones environment and time, not hatred for and isolation from it.

That life is pursuit is evident in both Thoreau’s Walden and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Both Thoreau and Gatsby live in pursuit of an ideal, a happiness, which remains perpetually just out of reach, but which neither can let go the hope of attaining. However, for these two completely different men, pursuit takes two utterly different forms. For Gatsby, the result is disastrous, however Thoreau, unlike Gatsby, kept one foot on the ground and maintained his grounding in reality. Thoreau recognized the importance of dreams as motivation, but even more so he recognized the importance of pursuing the dream and of having foundations for his dreams. Thoreau understood that the goal was not necessarily attainment of the dream, but the pursuing of it, whereas Gatsby could concentrate only on his dream and nothing but his dream. Thoreau also acknowledged the importance of foundations, something which Gatsby, who had destroyed his foundations in pursuit of a material dream, could never understand. As Thoreau put it in the conclusion of Walden: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”


Brown, Roger, and Richard J. Herrnstein. “Yerkes-Dodson Law.” Psychology. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1975. 106-107. Print.

Canin, Ethan. The Palace Thief. Random House: New York, 1994. Print.

Crane, Stephen. The Black Riders and Other Lines. Boston: Copeland and Day, 1896. Print. Eliot, T. S. Poem. The Hollow Men. Class Handout: n.p., 1925. N. pag. Print.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 2004 ed. New York: Scribner, 1925. Print.

Furius, Lucius. Thoreau: Genius Ignored. N.p.: n.p., 1997. Thoreau Reader. Web. 17 Apr. 2012. <>.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1929 ed. Norwalk: The Easton Press, 1854. Print.


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