The Dangerous Pursuit of “Happiness”

The current heated debates in the U.S. about personal freedom vs. the greater good for society when it comes to masks and vaccines has had me pondering for some time about a key phrase in the Declaration of Independence. That document authored by Thomas Jefferson and edited by a committee of five states in these familiar words: “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.”

As I have said numerous times lately I have been blessed during the pandemic by being introduced to the work of Dr. Brene Brown by my spiritual director and a book club I have been in. I am currently re-reading Brown’s 2011 book, “The Gifts of Imperfection” where she shares among other things the results of her research into joy and gratitude and describes what she has learned about the difference between two words we normally equate as synonymous, happiness and joy.

I was particularly pleased that Brown quotes a United Methodist pastor, Anne Robertson, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Bible Society, to explain the meaning of the Greek words for happiness and joy. Robertson says the Greek word for happiness
is Makarios, which was used to describe the freedom of the rich from normal cares and worries,
or to describe a person who received some form of good fortune, such as money or health. Robertson compares this to the Greek word for joy which is chairo. Chairo was described by the ancient Greeks as the “culmination of being” and the “good mood of the soul.” Robertson writes, “Chairo is something, the ancient Greeks tell us, that is found only in God and comes with virtue and wisdom. It isn’t a beginner’s virtue; it comes as the culmination. They say its opposite is not sadness, but fear.” (“Joy or Happiness?” St. John’s United Methodist Church, http://www.stjohnsdover.org/99adv3.html)

That understanding of those two words presents challenges to Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness,” and our American obsession with doing so. I think it is no coincidence that Jefferson owned far more slaves (600) than any of the other 15 of our other U.S. Presidents who were slave owners. According to Statista.com only Washington and Jackson owned even 200 slaves. Given the Greek definition of happiness it’s pretty obvious to me that Jefferson was quite free of many normal “cares and worries” most of us experience. That in no way diminishes all of Jefferson’s amazing accomplishments, but it does help to explain how he had time to create all of the advanced technologies at Monticello along with his diplomatic and political accomplishments.

It also explains his favoring the philosophy of John Locke when he included “the pursuit of happiness“ as one of three unalienable rights. I would argue that our American settling for happiness instead of joy is at the heart of our current manipulation by consumerism, materialism, individualism and elevating personal freedom over community and compassion. And this all contributes to the attitude of those who refuse to be vaccinated against a deadly pandemic because it violates their personal liberty. If the value of joy that comes with compassion and caring for others were more central to our cultural values fewer people would be willing to risk harm to themselves and the most vulnerable in our nation and world for their own personal liberty and “happiness.”

Our mistaken notions of happiness as the absence of pain or suffering is fed by consumerism and the prosperity gospel, and these fail to satisfy because in those models there is never enough of anything in these individual, self-centered pursuits that will ultimately satisfy our deep human hunger for human or divine connection. Our failure to grasp the true meaning of the Gospel of Christ as one of compassion, which means suffering with others has led us down the wide path that leads to destruction; and we are dangerously close to the point of no return on that path.

As I am writing this I again found today’s (August 7, 2021) daily devotion from Father Richard Rohr to be right on point. He quotes Buddhist teacher Cuong Lu: “The way to free yourself from pain is to feel it, not to run away, as difficult as that may be. Pain and suffering make life beautiful. This might be hard to believe while you’re suffering, but the lessons you can learn from hardships are jewels to cherish. If you’re suffering, it means you have a heart. Suffering is evidence of your capacity to love, and only those who understand suffering can understand life and help others.”

Jesus teaches the same in word and example by urging his followers in all three synoptic Gospels to “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16, Mark 8, Luke 9), and by his own courage to practice what he preached. Brene Brown addresses the same phenomenon from a psychological-emotional perspective in “The Gifts of Imperfection:” “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”

All of that wisdom from diverse perspectives is supported by our contemporary headlines. The Delta variant is running rampant threatening to overwhelm exhausted health care systems, a fragile economy, and kill thousands of more vulnerable people. What we are doing simply is not working, and unless we learn very soon to put aside our thirst for political power at all costs and our fear of each other we are headed for another bleak and dark winter of death and/or lonely isolation.

Dear God, give us ears to hear the truth that can set us free from fear and the pursuit of “happiness” that does not satisfy.

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