Happiness and Perfection

March 28, 2011


I was very disturbed the other day to hear someone pound the table and say that ” we should wait for the perfect solution and we will all be much happier.”

Classically, what was so profoundly attractive about our culture was embedded in the single phrase “pursuit of happiness.” To explain, happiness isn’t about joy; happiness is about the freedom to choose a course of action that you believe to be best for you (how your life happens). It’s in the origin of the word happiness that our founding fathers put forth an eloquent and far-sighted observation. It was a great stride in democratic thought that bent the illogical nature of the vote as an expression of the public will into a compassionate way of dealing with widespread inequities. As a result of exploring happiness, we became very adept at using individual tragedies as a way to focus on reforming widespread social malaise.

It was never about perfection, although there is an aspect of faith in progress towards perfectibility involved.  For example, Joe was driving along in his car and hit a sheep. He was thrown through the windshield. Because the glass wasn’t safety plate glass, he was cut to pieces and killed instantly. In that individualized  moment, people could relate Joe’s accident and his family’s tragedy to the tens of thousands of potential tragedies that were bound to occur if automobiles didn’t use safety glass. From the specific to the general is a highly useful concept; it can be a very clever way of testing a basic assumption. No one worried too much about all the other kinds of accidents that could have just as easily snuffed out Joe’s life and left his family penniless. In any case, I’m happier to use my car now than I was before. Seat belts and air bags were also great improvements.

The current buzzword is framing, a term used to describe an implied context or unexamined assumption. One of the popular words used in  framing is perfection. In the name of perfection, we have failed to address a vast array of social and economic ills that beset our society. While we wait for the perfect power generator, our Power Grid starves and we race towards disaster. In the name of perfection we have failed to do lifesaving research that would benefit millions. Because there is no unique and perfect solution to education, we decide we can’t talk about the unpleasant truths of our times. Because there is no ultimate and therefore perfect proof that something might not be risk free, we can deny ourselves the possibility of exploring useful solutions to things like electric cars, public transportation, safe food, effective drugs, religious disputes, racial problems, and perhaps even dinosaurs. There is such a noise in the background concerning perfection and risk free that we often fall back on the argument of convenience which is a terrible way to assess the performance of an aircraft or the performance of the mortgage market.

Happiness and imperfection belong together. They are as bound together in meaning and in context as life and water.  Fear and perfection belong together. Keep that in mind next time someone offers you a happy, risk free opportunity as the perfect route to success. Remember that perfection is a top-down method of controlling the specific through the application of the general. It is authoritarian in nature.  Happiness is the bottom-up procedure for reform and is the essential ingredient in a democracy. Perfection is the third ingredient in Ordered,  Unchanging, and Perfect. Happiness is the third ingredient in Life , Liberty, and (the pursuit of) Happiness.



About charles frenzel

I've been writing all my life. I've also painted, composed, sculpted, contributed to molecular research, advanced some mathematical concepts, lived on a sailboat, and worked for a Nobel Prize winner. Nothing in my life has pleased me more than to share my life with my wife and friend of over forty years.

View all posts by charles frenzel

One Response to “Happiness and Perfection”

  1. Valerie Dickison Says:

    Your first sentence really gave me a chuckle. “We should wait for the perfect solution…” Typical of humanity to sit on their thumbs waiting. Happiness is a proactive condition. Create your own happiness! Don’t sit idly waiting for hit to happen. When I retired from my career in 2010 I was fearful I would go mad from boredom. I feared “not being happy.” So, I created mental characters and took to the computer keyboard. The fictitious folks in my books make me laugh. They make me happy. Readers tell me that my humor lightens their souls. By creating my own happiness I have passed the gift of joy on to them.

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