The Pursuit of Happiness
The text in the second section of the United States Declaration of Independence reads, “(We believe)… that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It is one of the most famous phrases in the Declaration and considered by some as part of one of the most well-crafted, influential, and well-known sentences in the history of the English language.
In his book, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Gary Wills argues that for Thomas Jefferson this phrase, “pursuit of happiness,” did not refer to some vague and private notion of contentment but to a more public happiness that is measurable. The pursuit of happiness defined by Jefferson is life that arises from certain character traits — courage and heart devoted to the good of the common man; kindness that confers happiness on the giver; fortitude and generosity.
Aristotle declared happiness to be the chief good; people desire other things such as power, wealth, or losing 10 pounds because they believe that this will lead to happiness, but their real goal is happiness.
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about this idea, “the pursuit of happiness.” What are those attitudes and qualities that produce a “happy life?” “What is happiness?” “And according to whom?”
In her book, The Happiness Project writer Gretchen Rubin attempts to answer these very questions while exploring happiness in her own life (happiness-project.com). Ruben chronicles the 12 months she spends test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific research, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier. Her book has inspired me to embark on something of a happiness project of my own. So these days I am cleaning out my closets, getting more fresh air, playing tennis, practicing gratitude, letting things go, showing kindness, and trying out theories like, “act the way you want to feel” (Which I am finding very effective!).
But I am also, of course, asking, “What does my faith have to say about this pursuit of happiness?” This week I have been reading the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
It certainly is a different kind of list. Happy are the poor in spirit? In his commentary on Matthew, Stanley Hauerwas writes, “The Sermon on the Mount is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered around God.” It is Hauerwas’ way of pointing out that these sayings of Jesus are not recommendations — no one is asked to go out and try to be poor in Spirit. Rather, given the reality of what the Kingdom of God requires of us, we should not be surprised to discover the meek, those who mourn, and the poor in spirit among those who follow God’s call. The Sermon on the Mount is a description of a way of life for those who follow. Each of the Beatitudes names a gift, a blessing, marked by the transforming presence of God’s Kingdom in our lives. It’s a lot to think about in the context of the pursuit of happiness.