Life, Liberty & The Pursuit of Happiness | Motivational Podcasts

Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast. Today’s reading is edited and adapted from the work of David Starr Jordan, the founding President of Stanford University, who is also one of the authors featured in our popular hardcover book Evergreen: 50 Inspirational Life Lessons. To learn more about this motivational book, please visit

Among the inalienable rights of Americans, as history has taught us, are these three: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” So long as we are alive and free, we will, in one way or another, seek that which gives us pleasure — hence life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are in essence the same. But the pursuit of happiness is an art in itself. To seek it is not necessarily to find it, and failure may destroy both liberty and life.

Of some phases of this pursuit, I wish to speak today. My message is an old one. If by good chance some part of it is true, this truth is as old as life itself. And if it be true, it is a message that needs to be repeated many times to each generation of citizens.

It is one of the laws of life that each acquisition has its cost. No organism can exercise power without yielding up part of its substance. The natural law of transfer of energy is the basis of human success and happiness. There is no action without expenditure of energy, and if energy be not expended, the power to generate it is lost.

This law shows itself in a thousand ways in the life of the individual. The arm which is not used becomes feeble. The wealth which comes by chance, weakens and destroys. The good which is unused turns to evil. The charity which asks no effort “cannot relieve the misery it creates.” The truth which someone else has won from nature or from life is not our truth until we have lived it. The only things that become real or helpful to anyone are those which have cost the sweat of our brow, the effort of our brain, or the anguish of our soul.

If you would be wise, you must daily earn your wisdom — for those who add not effort to power soon lose the power they once had. The responsibility for effort thus rests with the individual. This need is the meaning of individuality, and by it each must work out their own salvation, though with fear and trembling it may be sometimes, and all times with perseverance and patience.

The greatest source of failure in life comes from this. It is easier to be almost right than to be right; to wish, than to gain. In default of gold, there is always something almost as good, and which glitters equally. In default of possession, illusion can be had, and more cheaply. It is possession only which costs. Illusion can be had on easy terms, though the final end of deception is failure and misery.

Happiness must be earned, like other good things, else it cannot be held. It can be deserved only where its price has been somehow paid. Nothing worth having is given away in this world, nor in any other that we know of. No one rides empty headed on the road to happiness. Those who try to do so, never reach their destination. They are left in the dumps.

It is probably too much to say that all of human misery can be traced to air-headed habits. Misery has as many phases as humanity. But it is probably not be far from the truth. No one is ever miserable who would truly pay the price of happiness. No one is really miserable who has not tried to cheapen life.

The price which every good and perfect gift demands, we would somehow or another get out of paying. But we can never cheat the gods. Their choicest gifts lie not on the bargain counters. Our reward comes with our effort. It is part of the same process. In this matter, we get what we deserve, meted out with the justice of eternity.

In the sense in which I use the terms sorrow and misery, they are not the same thing. They are not on speaking terms with each other. True sorrow (the pain of loss) is a hallowed suffering, a necessity in a world which each one of us must leave as we entered it: alone. And I would not have it otherwise, for there is (in the nature of things) no other possibility.

So long as we live; we must take chances. Sorrow is sacred. Misery, however, is accursed. Sorrow springs from our relations with others. Misery we have all to ourselves. As real happiness is the glow which accompanies normal action, the reflex of the abundance of life, so is misery the shadow of dullness, the reflex of failing or a morbid life.

Misery is nature’s protest against degeneration. Human misery may be a symptom, a cause, or an effect. It is an expression of degeneration, and therefore a symptom of mental and spiritual decay. It is a cause of weakness and discouragement, and therefore of further degeneration and deeper misery.

Personal degeneration can be attributed to a multitude of causes. None of the causes are simple. Some are subjective, the visible signs of weak mind or mean spirit. Some are objective, the product of evil social conditions, to which the weak mind or mean spirit responds to its further injury. None of these can be removed by any single social panacea.

When I was a boy, I once had a primer which gave the names of many things which were good and many which were bad. Good things were faith, hope, charity, piety, and integrity, while anger, selfishness, and trickery were rightly put down as bad. But among the good things, the primer placed “adversity.” This I could not understand, and to this day I remember how I was puzzled by it.

The name “adversity” had a pretty sound, but I found that its meaning was the same as “bad luck.” How can bad luck be a good thing? Now that I have grown older and have watched the lives and actions of men and women for many years, I can see how bad luck is really good.

Good or bad is not in the thing itself, but in how we take it. If we yield and break down under it, it is not good; but neither are we good. It is not in the luck, but in ourselves, that the badness is. But if we take hold of bad luck bravely, resolutely, we may change it into good luck, and when we do so, we make ourselves stronger for the next struggle.

It was a fable of the Norsemen that when a person won a victory over another, the strength of the conquered went over into the victor’s veins. This old fancy has its foundation in fact. Whoever has conquered fortune has luck on their side for the rest of their life.

So adversity is good, if only we know how to take it. Shall we shrink under it, or shall we react against it? Shall we yield or shall we conquer? To react against adversity is to make serendipity our servant. Its strength goes over to us. To yield is to make us a slave of chance. Our strength is turned against us in the pressure of circumstances.

Activity and life demand reaction, and it is only through resistance that we can conquer adversity. In like fashion, temptation has its part to play in the development of character. The strength of life is increased by the conquest of temptation. We may call no person virtuous till they have won such a victory. It is not the absence of temptation, but the reaction which leads away from it, that ensures the persistence of virtue.

In every walk in life, strength comes from effort and the power to resist. The successful have learned the value of money, and they have learned how to refuse to spend it. They have learned the value of time, and how to convert it into money, and they have learned to resist all temptations to throw either money or time away. They have learned to say no. And to say no at the right time (and then to stand by it) is the first element of success.

I heard once of a university where the students were placed in a row, and each one knocked down every morning, to teach them self-control. By this means, they were made slow to anger — and to resist wrath helps one to resist other impulses.

There is a great value in the habit of self-restraint, even when self-gratification is harmless in itself. Whenever we say no to ourselves, we gain strength to say no, if need be, to others. Early Americans were strong in their day, and their strength was the backbone of our republic. They were ready to resist whatever they thought was wrong. In this resistance they found strength; and they found happiness, too.

There is no real happiness that does not involve self-denial. Each pleasure that comes to us free from effort and free from responsibility turns into misery in our hands. Happiness comes from the normal exercise of life’s functions: doing, thinking, fighting, overcoming, planning, loving. It is active, positive, strengthening. It does not burn out as it glows.

Happiness leaves room for more happiness. Even war and strife make room for love. Love, too, is a positive word. Not love, but loving. And loving brings happiness only as it works itself out into living action. The love that would end in no helping act and no purpose or responsibility is a mere torture of the mind.

The brain is the organ of consciousness, and therefore the seat of conscious happiness. Happiness is the signal, “All is well,” that is passed from one nerve-cell to another. To choose among different possible courses of action is the primary function of the intellect. To choose at all, implies the choice of the best. And in the long run, only those who choose the best survive — and what qualifies as “the best” each one of us must find out for ourselves.

To choose the best is the art of existence. Of all the fine arts, this is the finest and noblest. By the best, I mean that which makes for abundance of life — for ourselves and for others, while keeping in mind that the best for today may not be the real best, just as the best for “self” may not be the best for others, and if it is not best in the long run, it is not the best at all.

The reconciliation of our duties to ourselves with our duties to others, of altruism with egoism, is again the art of life. To learn this art is to develop the greatest effectiveness, the most perfect self-realization, and therefore the greatest possibility for happiness.

In our quest for happiness, effectiveness rather than pleasure must be the real object of pursuit. For effectiveness in a high sense will bring happiness, while many of the apparent pleasures of life are only the masks of misery. The tendency to forsake normal effort to follow effective paths, we give the name of temptation.

Temptation resisted strengthens the mind and the soul. Not to escape temptation, but to master it, is the way to righteousness. Innocence is not necessarily virtue, and may be farther from it than vice itself. Any fool may be innocent. It takes a wise person to be virtuous. And we may call no person virtuous until they have passed from innocence to the conquest of temptation.

We can resist temptation by reminding ourselves that it promises pleasure without the effort of earning it; that happiness that is earned persists to make way for more happiness; that unearned pleasures are mere illusions, which (as they pass away) leave only weakness and pain — that such pleasures, as Robert Burns, who had tried many of them, truthfully says, are “like the snowfall on the river.”

But true happiness leaves no such reaction. The mind is at rest within itself, and our consciousness is filled with the joy of living.

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