We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. -From the US Declaration of Independence
Interesting, isn’t it, that Jefferson saw fit to include “the pursuit of happiness” as one of the unalienable natural rights we are all endowed with, and whose protection and guarantee are the province of our form of government whose powers are derived by consent of the governed. Of course, he didn’t elevate happiness itself to the level of a natural right – the guarantee of which for all the multitude of citizens is far beyond reasonable – but instead that we are entitled to pursue happiness. How we define it is left to each of us, as is the responsibility to go after that which makes us happy.
Interesting, too, is how many of us struggle in our pursuit, and how elusive true happiness remains for so many.
As cops you have a front row seat to the misery of others. Consider the calls you go on: The repetitive domestics where each day couples or families tear themselves apart with their words, actions, or fists, unable to see their own role in the strife or do anything to escape it; the habitual offenders whose own failures and weaknesses lead them to places of self-loathing and rage, which they pour out on unsuspecting victims; the addicts crawling inside a bottle or syringe to self-medicate their pain away only to see it come back stronger than before, and with an ever-growing side of guilt for their inability to stop. Sometimes we even see it in the sad eyes of the perpetual victims and repeat callers who come to us with tales of yet another mistreatment or oppression (real or imagined) at the hands of another, which we’re supposed to somehow fix for them knowing full well they’ll be calling dispatch or schlepping into the desk next week with yet another complaint.
Why are so many so unsettled and so unhappy? What is it in some of us that leads to such discontent? Of course there are those suffering from depression or other mental illnesses who have little choice in the matter and who deserve our compassion, understanding, and help, but too many others are simply unhappy or dissatisfied with life. There are no serious underlying chemical or organic causes, nor can they point to any particular life event (disease, unavoidable circumstances, etc.) that objectively points to unhappiness; they just seem willing to be unhappy or wait for circumstances to spontaneously change and bring them happiness.
In truth, wallowing in unhappiness or being unable to extricate oneself from destructive or dysfunctional circumstances may be a byproduct of mental illness such as major depression. But sometimes it’s simply inertia. It’s easier to sit and wait for something better to come along, or to one day wake up happy, than doing the hard work that goes into actually pursuing happiness.
We easily see that so many of the public you serve are unhappy, and the reasons why are as varied as there are individuals, but what about within the police ranks? As you probably well know, and we write about, police officers are not immune to unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Why police officers might be unhappy is perhaps easier to understand but whether you are “civilian” or “cop” this truth remains: If you want a fulfilled, happy, satisfying life it is up to you to pursue it.
What happy people usually already know, but everyone can learn, is that happiness doesn’t just happen but is created out of the choices we make and, more specifically, the behaviors and attitudes we put forth. To paraphrase David Burns, MD, one of the founders of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, put positive behaviors into practice and then the positive feelings will follow. Conversely, the opposite is true, as well: Putting negative behaviors into practice leads to negative feelings. This is only common sense but most people simply follow their moods. They act not with the motivation to get better and feel better long term but rather what feels good in the moment – even if they’ll pay a known price later.