Monday, January 11, 2016

A Thought Experiment

The famous wording originated with Thomas Jefferson and survived three full rounds of edits: one from Julian Boyd, a second from the Committee of Five and a third from Congress. The final version reads:

“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.”

Let’s talk about the pursuit of happiness.

It ain’t scripture, folks, but enough people can relate to the concept that a nation built around it (and the other “truths”) has survived 240 years. And people continue to find the notion appealing today.

Ask the Wiki

So what is happiness anyway?

Wikipedia calls it “a mental or emotional state of being defined by positive emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.” That’s a definition most people could get behind, I think, but the words that follow it are interesting:

“Happiness is a fuzzy concept and can mean many different things to many people.”

See, that’s an important observation.

Recognizing these differences to be common, some suggest self-examination as a means of determining what sorts of “happiness” each individual should pursue. They say, “Listen to your body”: ask yourself if certain situations or circumstances make you tense up or if they convey a pleasant sensation. They say, “Pay attention to your energy”: ask yourself if people or activities make you feel drained or alive. They say, “Look at what you want”: ask yourself if you really need the things you are focusing on or merely want them. Finally, they speak of timelessness: does the object of your desire make you lose track of time and make everything else disappear from focus?

That’s interesting, and probably acceptable to most people since it makes each individual the arbiter of his or her own happiness as well as the person best suited to determine it.

Arbiters on the Job

And yet we all recognize that some people use the word happiness in a very loose and trivial way. They seek less than we think they should for themselves and others. Some define happiness in ways that those with a few years behind us know very well will lead to abject misery.

This may be because they are shallow thinkers or lack the requisite life experience to recognize what is truly important to the achievement of contentment or joy. It may be because they are disproportionately obsessed with some specific, personal pleasure or aspiration that seems at least for a time to fill the whole world and assume an importance far beyond that which others would ever ascribe to it. Or it may be because they do not understand the true nature of what they are seeking.

Many people get the thing they thought would make them happy only to find themselves bitterly disillusioned, wondering where to turn. It may be a particular partner, a house, a level of income or the fulfillment of some long-sought goal; but whatever it is, the having of it does not seem to measure up to their expectations.

That in turn leads some to speculate that it is the quest for, and not the achievement of, particular outcomes that leads to the greatest happiness. Schools of philosophy are founded on such notions, but these seem to me to beg the question rather than answer it.

We might wonder: Is anyone really fit to be arbiter of their own happiness?

A More Objective Definition

Turning to scripture in the hope of something a little more objective, we find that instead of giving us a neat one-sentence definition like Wikipedia, God has given testimony after testimony as to the sorts of behaviors that really make people happy. (If we are paying attention, we might also notice that in our Western culture these are among the methods least pursued.)

Hmm. Interesting.

Not the Faintest Clue

That’s pretty much everything scripture has to say about happiness. There are plenty of things said about contentment and joy, but these are topics big enough to merit consideration on their own, and I suspect any serious study of the way those words are used in scripture would yield similar results.

And that is this: Every single thing the Bible says makes men and women happy involves sacrifice, service and relationship to God. Not a single item on this list has anything to do with wealth, health, personal development, self-actualization, travel, security, the attainment of position, status, power or worldly achievement. Not one of them is found in a mall.

Outside of God’s revelation, it seems human beings don’t have the faintest clue what makes us tick. What we think will make us happy does not. The things we think unlikely to lead to happiness frequently do.

So here’s the thought experiment: How likely is the world to succeed in the pursuit of happiness through self-analysis?

And a more relevant question for our audience: What are the chances of a Christian ever finding happiness by employing the failed methods of this world?

1 comment :

  1. A footnote on the subject of “the pursuit of happiness”.

    The idea actually originates with Aristotle. For Aristotle, “happiness” was not what we think of — jollies, amusement, self-satisfaction through riches, and so forth — but rather could be better translated “blessedness”. The concept goes back to Solon’s aphorism, “Call no man happy [i.e. blessed] until he’s dead”, which Aristotle quotes with approval just before launching into his exposition of ethics. To be “blessed” was to have lived a life characterized by moral goodness and right priorities. In a sense, it could be a rather ‘unhappy’ life, in that one might experience minimal jollies, amusement or self-satisfaction in it. But it was the sort of life of which others would say afterward, “He lived well”. That is, he was a good-spirited individual who established during his lifetime a habitual pattern of making admirable, courageous and virtuous choices, and hence left behind him a life worthy of admiration and emulation.

    Thus judgment of the worth of the “happiness” and the life that led to it was inherent in the idea of Aristotelian well-being. He was affirming the importance of living a life that other good people would judge worthy of praise and replication; and to do that, they would have to pass judgment on what you had done, and the pattern of life you had led. If right-thinking people then found your life a worthy one, you could then be said to be truly “happy” — “blessed."

    That’s a pretty far cry from what most people in the U.S. and elsewhere think today when they proclaim their right to “pursuit of happiness”. The concept has shifted massively in the intervening centuries. But the founding fathers of the Declaration would have been Aristotelians, not practitioners of modern, solipsistic hedonism. Their conception of what they were affirming would have been that of Aristotelian blessedness, or at least of Christian virtue. They would never have enshrined in an important document any right to live frivolously or to obtain the modern kind of happiness by any means one might choose.