In the U.S. Declaration of Independence among our “unalienable rights given by our Creator” are listed “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That always seemed sort of strange to me—that pursuit of happiness part. I wonder whether it might not mean something different to us in the 21st century than what it meant to the founders of this country in 1776.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy threw some light upon my question when he explained this often forgotten sense of happiness in his 2005 lecture at the National Conference on Citizenship. Kennedy notes that while in modern times there is a “hedonistic component” to the definition of happiness, for the framers of the Declaration of Independence “happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.”
In the context of the Declaration of Independence, happiness was about an individual’s contribution to society rather than pursuits of self-gratification. Really?
That sounds a whole lot different than what our current generations think defines happiness! While the original definition of the framers of our Constitution has largely fallen out of use today, it’s important to keep their connotations of happiness in mind when studying political documents from the 18th century.
When we look at society today, especially in our Western cultures, the modern Pursuit of Happiness very much leans in the direction of the pursuit of fun and entertainment, material prosperity, and the accumulation of all that makes life easier and more leisurely.
The pursuit of happiness might be defined as receiving more income for fewer hours of work, abounding health or a full-coverage health insurance plan, adequate retirement savings, good returns on investments, ample time for recreation, and a whole roster of entitlements.
Oh yes, and unlimited access to the best golf courses! Sometimes it includes the freedom to change partners in current relationships in order to pursue greater personal happiness. More of everything is the hallmark of this world's definition of happiness.
There is a distinction even in modern times between happiness and joy, especially in one's life as a Christian. Happiness is thought to depend upon happenings, whether favorable or unfavorable to us. It is a surface reaction to circumstances, an emotional state dependent upon feelings. Happiness can be fleeting. And we indeed have to pursue it. It is like a vapor that quickly vanishes. It is part of this world's system.
Joy is something far deeper and less dependent on one's condition. Joy is what Jesus promised in fullness. It is one of the fruits of the Spirit. It is grown along with love and peace and the rest of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians chapter five. It is not dependent on happenings whether they are adverse or pleasing. Contentment is an integral part of joy.
Saint Paul was talking about Joy, not the Pursuit of Happiness when he declared, “Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.” (Philippians 4:11,12)
He was not pursuing illusive happiness; he was revelling in the joy of the Lord and pursuing the things that were eternal and not temporal, the unseen rather than the seen. He called it “a secret,” but not a secret meant to be hidden. One which we are to learn ourselves and also share with all fellow pilgrims on our earth-journey.
Amy Carmichael, the noted Christian writer and missionary to India in a past century, in her famous book Edges of His Ways made a wise observation of this distinction between joy and happiness. She knew the secret.
"Our happiness should not depend on the work we are doing, the place we are in, whether we are married or not, on our friends, our health or lack of these, our age, our abundance or want, whether people notice us or not, praise us or not, understand us or not. No single one of these circumstances has any power in itself to upset my joy in God. But it can instantly and utterly quench it, if we look AT the circumstances instead of UP into the face of our God."
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