In Pursuit of Happiness Part 2

Celebrating International Happiness Day

When I first realized individual happiness was not a recognized objective in the 17th century, I assumed happiness as a civic goal was a more recent but laudable social invention.

Then I learned Jefferson cut out a great deal of the Bible before concluding pursuit of happiness was one of the top 3 objectives. “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” documents where I began to question his work.

Today is International Happiness Day as set by the United Nations, and I’d like to share a few more results from my ongoing investigation on happiness.

There seem to be differing concepts of what happiness is. Consider 3 categories of happiness:

  1. Joy as the absence of fear and the presence of hope. Joy is defined by google as “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” That definition seems to mean joy is not possible without happiness. Christians would point out a state of joy is accessible always even without happiness, by tapping into the glory of God, be it in worship or appreciation of His creation.

2. A state of our brain.

Neurologically happiness correlates closely to something occurring that turns out to be better than expected. This definition correlates with the second google definition “fortunate or convenient”. People experiencing this sensation perform better than people who are not. “Happy people are less egoistic, less aggressive, less abusive to others and less prone to illness”, says German expert on neurological happiness Manfred Spitzer. That alone makes the pursuit of happiness desirable from a civic or corporate perspective. Manfred Spitzer finds that learning produces this feeling in a more reliable way with less addiction than drugs, exercise or anything else he’s found. If Jefferson had said “the pursuit of learning”, Roger Williams would have been all in. A dedicated scholar of scripture, language and culture Williams never ceased his dedication to learning. So a much better recipe for happiness than sticking a pencil in your mouth to force a smile (which releases happiness chemicals briefly) may be to read a book or take a class.

3. A feeling of pleasure or contentment.

This is both first definition google came up with and the lie of corporate marketing. It is actually likely to be the definition Jefferson had in mind, since in his draft he is said “pursuit of property”. This definition when achieved by drugs, sex or commercial goods may produce short term absence of pain or discontent, but it is addictive and unreliable. A longer term more satisfying version of this form of happiness is achieved with good relationships. Christians believe that includes good relationships with people and with the creator.

Today is also Palm Sunday. The crowds on Palm Sunday shouting Hosanna were there because they’d heard about the miracle of bringing Lazarus back to life after four days in the tomb. Miracles are exactly what Jefferson edited out of his Bible. That story shows the grief of Mary and Margaret over Lazarus’s death and the loss they were experiencing. The story shows Jesus’s reaction. Today a verse about his reaction is famous for being the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” Matthew says Jesus wept bitterly. We are not meant to be happy every minute of our lives. Part of coming back to joy is accepting our sadness, and learning to grow from it.

When we are sad, but not paralyzed with fear, our brains optimize for problem solving, for growth, for getting us to a better place. In this state we can be our most creative. And in the act of creating something new or novel, or of escaping current circumstance, we may indeed return to a state of happiness. Especially if we have that prerequisite joy — the absence of fear.

Bottom line: the Declaration of Independence might have better served our actual happiness if it guaranteed the pursuit of learning.

This would fitting. We are made in the image of the creator, who chose to reveal himself through stories. Story is how we learn.

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