“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”

Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Someone else once said, “A society based on the pursuit of personal happiness cannot survive, only one based on freedom and truth is sustainable…” In a fascinating recent New York Times article: “A Revolution in Happiness”, (7/2/19) the author posits a similar argument, that is, America’s obsessive preoccupation with finding personal happiness is actually leading us into being unhappy. I agree. In spite of the countless self-help books, seminars, sermons and even college courses on how to find personal happiness, the United States rates low in the world on the scale of personal happiness. I sense a quiet desperation in many people, even the most affluent and resourceful. There is a subtle anxiety, a low level joylessness and a yearning for something more, something outside of themselves which can make them happy.

From Jesus’ perspective, there is no happiness without freedom and no freedom without truth. We are living in perilous times in this regard. The “truth” is under assault on many fronts. Our own president has led the assault on truth with constant references to “fake news” and with constantly shifting statements and stories which have little basis in fact and which equivocate, exaggerate and conflate the facts until all people can say is, “I guess we’ll never know what the truth is.” The internet is the megaphone which amplifies the assault on truth and increases its impact exponentially. When truth dies, freedom is the next casualty. Scholars of totalitarian and fascist governments have chronicled this pattern historically. Our response is often to carve out our own little spaces and sanctuaries where we can feel free and in control and to cultivate our own personal little happiness.

An alternative to the quest for private happiness is the quest for what the author of the Times article I mentioned calls “public happiness.” She asserts, in fact, that this is what the Declaration of Independence refers to when it talks about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It is in this experience of public happiness, i.e. the common good, that the citizens of a country find their personal happiness. Public happiness was once defined as the greatest happiness of the greatest number” and this is the guiding star that should define good government. In this context, we should conceive of happiness as social well-being, the sum of individuals who achieve health, wealth and security-that the state is called on to produce, increase and protect.

As I celebrate the 4th of July, I find these ideas not only consistent with the founding fathers, but with the teachings of Jesus who always subverted personal happiness to the larger community and especially to those most vulnerable and at risk within that community. Jesus always talked about freedom in the context of truth and said that the very purpose of life was not about our own comfort, security and personal happiness but stewardship, and service. As a Christian, I equate “happiness” with the “abundant life” that Jesus spoke of and if I really understand Jesus, I can’t think of abundance only in individualistic terms, but only as all people, the whole “household of God” share in this abundance.