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What is "the pursuit of happiness"?

Yesterday was an unusual Fourth of July for me. All my kids were with their grandparents or at summer camp, and my wife and I didn't have any other plans, so we spent the day at home alone. To celebrate our nation's independence, we didn't watch fireworks or A Capital Fourth. We watched 1776, the 1972 film adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical. Sitting next to my sweetheart watching William Daniels (Boy Meets World's Mr. Feeny) playing John Adams over grilled steak and a Jack Daniels Country Cocktail—that's what I call the pursuit of happiness.

Unfortunately, as the movie went on, I overate. By the end, the mass of steak, potatoes, corn, Friendly's Reese's Cup Sundae, Bing cherries, blue corn tortilla chips, and alcohol in my belly made for a less-than-pleasant lurch off the couch and up to bed. But hey, that's what our forefathers fought for, right? My right to pursue my happiness at whatever the cost.

Earlier in the day I had reread the Declaration of Independence, and this morning I opened it up again. "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. . . ." What exactly does "the pursuit of Happiness" mean? I wondered. I didn't truly believe that it meant the right to pig out on July 4, but I had trouble squaring it with any biblical teaching. So I did some digging until I found a very helpful 2015 article by Carli N. Conklin in the Washington University Jurisprudence Review entitled "The Origins of the Pursuit of Happiness."

Conklin explains that 18th-century thinkers in the English-speaking world distinguished between two different kinds of happiness. The lower kind of happiness was contentment, pleasure, enjoyment of good fortune—the sort of happiness I felt last night watching a good movie over a good meal with my good wife. But they also defined a higher kind of happiness. Lower-level happiness means feeling good. Higher-level happiness means being good.

Higher-level happiness is connected to what ancient Greek philosophers called aretḗ and Romans called virtus—virtue. The "virtue" of anything was what made it excellent, fit for its purpose, the best of its kind it could be. The virtue of an axe is that it is well-balanced in the hand and cuts wood easily. The virtue of a song is that its sound stimulates and provides refreshment to the mind, the soul, and even the body. The virtue of a human being is the sort of character that we praise in the best of us—the kind of person we are all meant to be.

When we think of the ideals of the generation of the Founders, we immediately think of liberty and freedom. We may also think of equality, though their ideals overshot the reality they lived out (as often happens). But virtue was every bit as important to what they fought for. In fact, they believed that their entire experiment in liberty would fail if the American people did not excel in virtue. As John Adams would later say, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." The Founders' concern for virtue can even be seen in the mottos and emblems of some of the first thirteen states.

Pennsylvania coat of arms: "Virtue, Liberty, and Independence"


Georgia's coat of arms: "Wisdom, Justice, Moderation"

But it doesn't stop there. The Founders also believed that virtue was not merely a private, individual attribute. Human beings are inherently social, political, communal creatures. Therefore, private virtue always works itself out in public virtue—civic-mindedness and service to make an ideal community. To the Founders, then, the pursuit of happiness meant the pursuit of being the best persons and the best society we can be.

That got me thinking again about what they meant when they said that God has given people the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness and that governments are established to secure that right. "Right" does not mean "option"; it does not mean merely having permission to pursue happiness if we feel like it. It means that it is right to pursue happiness in the higher sense. The pursuit of higher happiness is the People's duty, and it is the duty of government to allow and even help them to pursue it.

This concept parallels the thesis of a bestselling book these days, David Brooks' The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. Brooks says that many people spend their lives climbing a mountain in pursuit of the lower kind of happiness, which includes wealth and worldly success. But they often find, as he himself did, a valley on the other side, because the lower kind of happiness doesn't make a person truly happy. Deliverance comes from recognizing that there is a second mountain, the pursuit of higher happiness, which he calls "joy." While people climb the first mountain by acquiring things for themselves, they climb the second mountain by learning the virtue of giving themselves away in committed love.

But how do Brooks or any of us know the way to the higher happiness that our Creator has endowed us with the right to pursue?

Like many of his contemporaries, Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Declaration, believed the path could be found in "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." Following thinkers through both the classical and Christian eras, Jefferson believed that God created the universe according to certain laws, not only physical laws but also moral ones. Jefferson believed that, just as Isaac Newton had discovered physical laws by use of his reason, moral laws could be discovered the same way by observing nature and what happens when people interact with each other.

Jefferson believed that the Bible was a strong source of wisdom for discovering these laws, its apex being the teachings of Jesus. He made for himself a "Bible" with every passage in the Gospels describing Jesus' miracles removed and the remainder pasted onto sheets of paper.

But it was here that Jefferson and other Enlightenment contemporaries made a crucial mistake. They believed that human beings not only had the right to pursue happiness but the reliable power to do so.

Jefferson's own life gave away his error. He believed that slavery was wrong and ought to be abolished, but he famously remained a slaveholder his whole life and only manumitted a few enslaved people upon his death. One reason for his hypocrisy over slavery was his hypocrisy over money. Jefferson believed debt to be a terrible thing, yet he was an inveterate shopaholic. His life floated on an ever-increasing raft of debt anchored to his collateral property consisting of land and slaves; he couldn't emancipate them because they were the only thing between him and bankruptcy. Jefferson was ultimately frustrated in his pursuit of higher happiness because he remained enslaved to his pursuit of lower happiness through his spending habits.

This is the same problem we all have. It is indeed our right to pursue the higher happiness of virtue that we are called to, and it is indeed the duty of the government to assist us in that pursuit. But unless our human nature is changed to fit "the laws of nature and of nature's God," we will not keep pursuing it. We will keep finding ourselves on the couch with a gluttonous bellyache.

It is no coincidence that Americans like myself have to Google what "the pursuit of happiness" meant to the Founders because we don't already know. As an entire society we have lost the pursuit of happiness, replacing it with the satiation of lower desires, with "give me what's mine," whether demanded from the government or from the market or from the privileged class or from anywhere else. It is no wonder we have never been less happy. Economically we are in the longest period of expansion since World War Two, yet psychically we are living through the real Great Depression.

Many religions—perhaps the greatest thinkers in every religion—see what Jefferson saw. They know that true happiness isn't feeling good but being good. They describe in similar terms what the truly good life and good society look like. But Christianity proposes one thing that is unique among all religions and philosophies pursuing happiness, the very thing that Jefferson cut out of his Bible. Christianity's founder did not only describe happiness; he did not only teach how to pursue happiness. He made happiness possible. He did not turn people into pursuers by teaching them. He did it by remaking them.

"I tell you the solemn truth," Jesus said, "unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God"—true happiness. "What is born of the flesh is flesh; what is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:3, 6). Unless you experience the spiritual rebirth that only he can provide—the kind of life he had when he came back from the dead—you will never reliably, consistently, successfully pursue happiness. However, "everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life" (v. 16). The pursuit may still be long, but you will be equipped for it. The higher happiness will be in your grasp. Someday you will reach the happy, virtuous society the Founders declared independence to pursue.


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