The Pursuit of Happiness

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. (United States Declaration of Independence)

Whatever the authors of the Declaration of Independence had in mind when they used the phrase “pursuit of happiness”, Americans through the years having so totally embraced the absolute value of the individual over and against society or any institution have come to think of the phrase as a guarantee that each individual should be able to pursue personal pleasure without any constraints whatsoever being placed on them.  That attitude often finds itself at odds with traditional Christian or other religious thinking and occasionally at odds with the law.

Many Americans consider our nation to be a Christian one, but sometimes find traditional Christian attitudes to be in opposition to American values.  Sometimes this has to do with changing values and definitions.  So Roman Catholic scholar Peter Kreeft points out that the understanding of “happiness” has changed greatly through time.  For example the 17th Century “mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic theologian” Blaise Pascal held to what was then the traditional understanding of happiness – a definition closer to what America’s founding fathers had in mind than is the current idea of happiness.   Kreeft writes:

Pascal uses “wretchedness (unhappiness) and “happiness” here in their deep, ancient meanings. There are three important differences:

  1. To us moderns, “happiness” connotes a subjective feeling, not an objective state, like health. To the ancients, happiness was to the soul what health was to the body. The test case is suffering: if happiness is objective, it can include suffering, as in Job and Greek tragedy; if it is merely subjective, then by definition it cannot.
  2. Our word “happiness” comes from the Old English “hap” (chance, luck, fortune: it “happens”). It comes from without and from the material world rather than from within our own souls. It comes from what used to be called “the gifts of Fortune”, who was traditionally pictured as a whore and a cheat (see, for example, BoethiusThe Consolation of Philosophy). Thus happiness is not under our own control – a terrifying and pessimistic conclusion indeed, as it is in Freud.
  3. To us, happiness is present and transitory rather than permanent: a momentary “high” rather than the quality of a whole life, as Aristotle defines it.

Like the ancients, Pascal means by “happiness” (I) a state of real perfection (2) of soul (3) in a complete life, including eternity. Aristotle’s word for this was eudaimonia: the lasting state (-id) of true goodness (eu-) of soul (daimon). That is why Pascal offers religion instead of psychology as the way to happiness; for psychology can make us feel good, but religion can make us be good.

(Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 27)

Many of the Church Fathers and Mothers thought emotions are fleeting and thus not a dependable way for making decisions.  If happiness is merely an emotion, than it too is fleeting and not worth pursuing.  However, if happiness is a state of being, not dependent on our moods or circumstances, then it is a good worth pursuing.  It is happiness as a state of being that helps us understand the martyrs and some of our hymns dedicated to the saints.  For example, the hymn for the Beheading of St. John the Baptist contains the phrase, “Therefore, having suffered for the truth with joy...”   One can suffer with joy only when happiness is a state of being rather than a fleeting emotion.

Rejoice in the Lord

“St. Paul urges us again and again, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Phil. 4:4).  Notice that he says, rejoice, not in your circumstances but in the Lord. This is where the joy is – in the Lord- not in our circumstances. We cannot squeeze a drop of rejoicing out of our circumstance or our past or our prospects, but we can always rejoice in the Lord. Habakkuk expressed it this way:

Though the fig tree does not blossom

nor fruit be on the vines,

the produce of the olive fail,

and the fields yield no food,

the flock be cut off from the fold

and there be no herd in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will joy in the God of my salvation.

(Hab. 3:17-18)

Rejoice in the Lord – not in your circumstances, not in your empty stalls and parched fields, but in the Lord.” (Anthony Coniaris, HOLY JOY, pp 57-58)


Commercials, Christmas, Consumption

SPOILER ALERT:   Before reading any further I want to be fair to all and warn everyone that this is an anti-consumerist, anti-commercial Christmas rant.  So if you love mounds of Christmas presents and wrapping paper, you’ve been warned about the risks of reading on.

“It takes a tremendous amount of miseducation, usually in the form of advertising and social manipulation, to convince people that their happiness lies exclusively in ‘things’ rather than persons.” (Medaille, TOWARD A TRULY FREE MARKET, p 96)

Maybe you are one of those persons who loves advertising because it tells you about new products – what is out there and available for purchase, the cutting edge of technology for home and office.   I am not one of those people.  I almost never watch commercial TV or listen to commercial radio.  I can’t stand commercials and would rather live without the media if I have to be subject to the constant noise pollution and brainwashing commercials represent.    Commercials always give you the impression that they have your best interest at heart – your happiness, and it just so happens that your happiness is completely determined by things, things the advertising conveniently is hawking.  Buy the right products and your happiness is virtually guaranteed and so is that of your loved ones.  Noting but happiness in your home this Christmas if you buy enough stuff for everyone.

A number of years ago, an aged former home builder told me that in the 1920’s when he started building homes, the houses had lots of bedrooms and no closets because everyone had lots of kids but owned very little.  But by the late 1950’s the trend had switched to homes with fewer bedrooms and lots of closets, he told me, as we came to love things rather than people.  He sighed, and said, “We used to love people and use things, and now it is the reverse.”

“Currently, consumers are the victims of nonstop propoganda which appeals to their basest  instincts.  It is no more than commercial pornography, but it is necessary to the supply-push problem.  This propaganda is especially directed at children, who must be socialized to the culture of consmerism if the current system is survive.”  (Medaille,  p 203)

Advertising is not really concerned about your happiness, though I’m sure it is OK with advertisers if you are happy with and after purchasing their products.  Happiness is a by-product in advertising, the real goal is to get you to buy things, that makes the advertisers happy.   The pursuit of happiness is an American dream, though happiness is often elusive to many.  But then we aren’t guaranteed happiness, just the right to pursue it.  Advertisers want you to believe through their commercials that buying more things is the best, perhaps the only way to pursue happiness.

Another by-product of consumerism is garbage.   LA TIMES reporter David Lazarus in an interview on MarketPlace Morning Report, When the Holiday Season Means More Waste, commented:

“So keep in mind that we generate about 25 percent more waste during the holiday season, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s — that’s a million tons a week of extra stuff. What do I mean by that? I mean about 125,000 tons of plastic packaging; what I mean is about 744 million holiday cards that are sent; what I mean are about 8,000 tons of wrapping paper used on presents. That’s the equivalent of about 50,000 trees.”

The pursuit of happiness has lots of by-products:  one of which is  an incredible amount of unwanted garbage.   Who knew “love” had so many unwanted collateral by-products?   The materialization of love comes with tons of trash!   1 Corinthians 13 presents a more perfect way of love which also happens to be much more environmentally friendly.

Some of the garbage is the result of a “throw-away” culture which produces massive amounts of waste.    It is based in what is called the “Sloanist” model of manufacturing which relies on “consumer credit and planed obsolescence to keep the wheels running.”

Ah yes, another by-product of the season to be jolly is massive amounts of credit debt.  Put in rather stark and negative terms, we come to realize what it all means:

“In other words, what the system actually  manufactures is landfill, objects that spend as little time as possible in the hands of the consumers as useful products while on their journey to the dump as useless garbage.  Thus, the production model requires a consumerist model; we must be constantly taught, through expensive, manipulative, and unrelenting propaganda (advertising) that our happiness lies not in persons, but in things, and not merely in things, but in constantly new things.The old is icky; worse, it is unfashionable.  Only by constanly buying what we don’t need or already have can the system sustain itself; the size of the garbage dump becomes the true measure of our ‘wealth.'”  (Medaille, pp 194-195)

Of course there are other ways to “spend” Christmas.  There are the needy and wonderful charity organizations of all kinds that can use our support.  With the needy we can learn to give expecting nothing in return (It’s the Gospel!).   With charities, they can use our financial help or our volunteered time to accomplish their goals of helping others.

There is also the Church, the organization that was also born with Christ and which exists to give glory to God.   The Church also exists to offer blessedness, happiness, to the world.  The Church has a free gift of eternal life to offer everyone.   Especially if you have found a certain emptiness in your life despite all the things you own, the Church is here to say there really is something worth pursuing, which will not grow old or end up in a landfill.  It is eternal life.

The Church too uses some “propoganda” in the forms of our hymns.  One of the Pre-Christmas hymns  (from Matins of December 21) in the Orthodox tradition reads:









Christmas from God’s point of view really is about your happiness.  AND you don’t have to buy anything. It is God’s free gift to you.

This Christmas gift came wrapped in swaddling clothes, cost you nothing, and is given freely to every weary soul, to the lost, to those who feel like they are drowning in life.  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).   Christ came to give you a wealth which will not weary you nor produce any waste.  “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich”  (2 Corinthians 8:9).  He gives you as a gift His Kingdom.

Christ is born!

Come, glorify Him.

The Truly Rich are Those who Give Their Wealth to Others

“The love of beautiful objects must not become purely selfish. If it does, we shall end up not knowing what the true beauty is like. It would be sad indeed if people were to say of us:

‘Their land, their slaves and their capital assets are worth fifteen millions, but they themselves are only worth three pennies.’

[…] We must continually repeat those amazing words of the Lord: ‘Sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, where there are neither robbers nor rust.’ (cf. Matt. 19:21; 6:20) The truly rich are not those who keep their riches to themselves but those who give to others. Happiness comes not from possessing wealth but from giving it away. Whatever is generously given away becomes a fruit of the soul. It therefore become’s the soul’s wealth.”   (Clement of Alexandria in Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary, pgs. 294 – 295)

Denying the Self AND Taking Up the Cross

Mark 8:34-9:1

And the Lord called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom commented on the need of each Christian to take up their own cross as Jesus taught:

Martyrs Boris & Gleb

 “He is not going to be crucified for you every day. There is a moment when you must take up your own cross. We must each take up our own cross, and when we ask something in our prayers, we undertake by implication to do it with all our strength, all our intelligence and all the enthusiasm we can put into our actions, and with all the courage and energy we have. In addition, we do it with all the power which God will give us. If we do not do this, we are wasting our time praying.” (Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, pg. 36)

Denying oneself can also be manifested in “dying to self”:

“‘Dying to self’ is spiritual shorthand for rooting out all manner of exaggerated self-interest, characteristics of ourselves that constrict us in narcissism and blind self-centeredness. This is the self within us, while all too real, is what nonetheless must die, the ‘false self,’ which must give way to the new life we are called to attain. The false self embodies the very characteristics we loathe in our better moments. Were we to look at ourselves honestly, we would see how petty, thoughtless, and loveless we can be at any given moment. We might have an occasional, fleeting insight that we will never attain any real happiness unless we come to terms with what really counts in life. One doesn’t have to search far to find pathetic example of individuals who struck it rich by the standards of ‘the world,’ yet whose personal lives were utterly miserable. Wealth, fame, and talent alone are not good enough to make us happy. When they occur independently of genuine spiritual values, they only throw into greater relief the true poverty and slavery of our lives.” (The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, pgs. 86-87)

The Americanization of America

I finished reading Gordon Wood’s THE AMERICANIZATION OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN.   An excellent biography of Franklin as well as a good American history book.  I had commented in a previous blog (Ben Franklin and the Americanization of Freedom ) about the opening chapters of the book in which Franklin was a loyal British citizen trying to preserve the unity of the British Empire.

The book traces the changes in Franklin’s thinking through time resulting in his becoming an American.  There is a parallel reality that America simultaneously was becoming American as well.  In many ways Franklin’s transformation happens as America itself is being born and transformed into an independent nation.

I want to offer a few quotes from the book  which were significant to me.  First, a quote about Britain, the nation Franklin loved but became totally disenchanted with.   Franklin criticized Britain for being blinded by

“… her Fondness for Conquest as a Warlike Nation, her Lust of Dominion as an Ambitious one, and her Thirst for a gainful Monopoly as a Commercial one.”  (p 166)

I have to wonder what he would have said about the USA today with our pride in being the greatest military power on earth and our constant willingness to make the military our main form of foreign policy.  Franklin saw in Britain what Eisenhower warned about in America – the military industrial complex.

The second quote deals with Franklin’s own self evaluation.

“… as Franklin disarmingly admitted, he  never had much success ‘in acquiring the Reality” of the virtue of humility, but he ‘had a good deal with regard to the Appearance of it.’  Humility, he said, had not been on his original list of virtues; he had added it only because a friend had told him that he was too proud.  Franklin was well aware of his pride and its near relation, vanity.  He had begun his Autobiography by admitting the overwhelming power of vanity.  ‘Most people,’ he had written in 1771, ‘dislike Vanity in others whatever Share they have of it themselves.’  But Franklin knew better.  ‘I give it fair Quarter whenever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of Good to the Possessor and to others that are within his Sphere of Action.’  … Pride, he conceded, was the hardest passion to subdue.  ‘Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself.’  ‘Even if he could completely overcome his pride, he would probably then be proud of his humility.’”  (p 207)

Wood points out in his book that interestingly America’s image and evaluation of Franklin through our history has changed as America changed.  As American attitudes toward agriculture, economy and capitalism morphed so did American ideas of who Franklin was and what he accomplished.  The notion of working hard to attain success amazingly enough was an American invention.  In Europe the rich did not work at all while the majority of people, the laborers, struggled to survive not to get ahead.

“… Franklin’s Autobiography had an inordinate influence on America’s understanding of itself.  Out of these repeated messages of striving and success not only did ordinary northern white men acquire a heightened appreciation of their work and their worth; they were also able to construct an enduring sense of American nationhood – a sense of America as the land of enterprise and opportunity, as the place where anybody who works hard can make it, as the nation of free and scrambling money-making individuals pursuing happiness.  This myth of American identity created during the several decades following the Revolution became so powerful that succeeding generations were scarcely able to question it.

Among the peoples of the world only Americans of the early republic, as their great observer Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, celebrated work as ‘the necessary, natural, and honest condition of all men.’  What most astonished Tocqueville was that Americans thought not only that work itself was ‘honorable,’ but that ‘work specifically to gain money’ was ‘honorable.’” (p 243-244)

We no longer even have a sense of how radical an idea these notions of work for profit were to the 18th Century.  And it explains how “profit” became a virtue in America, perhaps the greatest and most important  virtue in American mythology.  Something which no one would have listed as a virtue prior to 19th Century America became central to the American value system.   Whereas prior to the Revolution Franklin with many other wealthy people believed it was only poverty and hunger which caused the working class to work (thus poverty was a positive motivating factor for the poor!), America changed the attitude of and toward the working class.  For it came to pass that working for profit became so highly valued in America.

“…said Tocqueville, ‘all see quite clearly that it is profit which, if not wholly then at least partially, prompts them to work.’”

Making profit a virtue is from an American point of view, America’s success.   It is the reinterpretation of Benjamin Franklin as an American that helped spur this development along.