On July 4, in the year 1776, on a bright and sunny but cool Philadelphia day, the newly formed Continental Congress of the North American British Colonies, unanimously adopted a document, originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson and revised by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, famously known as the Declaration of Independence. The second paragraph of this document contains perhaps the most famous sentence in American history:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among which are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Thus was emblazoned in our national consciousness what has become America’s favorite pastime (and I’m not talking about baseball!). I’m talking about the pursuit of happiness.
The Pursuit of Happiness
We Americans are obsessed with being happy, but we are also terribly confused about what happiness is and how we can get it. As a result, we seldom find true happiness that lasts. We have silly notions about happiness, and if you don’t believe me, just look to America’s own guru of happiness, His Holiness, Dr. Phil. According to Dr. Phil, the way to achieve inner peace and happiness is to “finish all the things you have started and have never had time to finish.”
Upon reading Dr. Phil’s wonderfully wise prescription for personal happiness, one desperate housewife wrote:
“So, I looked around my house to see all the things I had started and hadn’t finished, and before leaving the house this morning, I finished off a bottle of White Zinfandel, a bottle of Jose Cuervo Tequila, a package of Oreos, the remainder of my old Prozac prescription, the rest of the cheesecake, some Doritos, and an entire box of chocolates. You have NO IDEA how happy I feel right now.”
While this may be funny, it highlights both how desperate we are for happiness and yet how monumentally confused we actually are. And this frustrates us because, as Americans, we have a sense of entitlement about happiness and if we somehow are unable to find it, we inevitably develop what Alexis de Tocqueville, called
“A strange melancholy in the midst of abundance.”
We also don’t know how to teach our kids about living life and finding happiness. We expect them to figure it out on their own or learn from their peers or their culture. The sad truth is that we, as individuals, as the Church and as a collective society need to get a life. We desperately need to rediscover the good life that has been sucked out of us by a modern world obsessed with pleasure, fast living, technological gadgetry, media saturation, totalitarian consumerism, and our own self-centered tendencies. But to do this, we cannot look at our own culture and its teachings about happiness. We must go further back and much deeper. We must return to the Classical and Christian wisdom of the Ancients and the Founding Fathers who understood and knew how to practice the disciplines of “The Good Life.” But before we can explore the Classical Christian concept of happiness and teach it to our kids, we need to understand how our modern culture thinks about happiness.
The Wrong Idea of Happiness
In her song, “Piece of My Heart,” rock legend Janis Joplin captured well modern culture’s definition of happiness: “You know you got it if it makes you feel good.” It is this hedonistic approach to happiness that has destroyed and continues to destroy countless lives throughout America. It was this very philosophy of happiness which resulted in Janis Joplin’s untimely death in 1970 at the age of 27 from a drug overdose.
Similarly, a recent dictionary definition describes happiness as “a sense of pleasurable satisfaction.” Notice that the dictionary, like the song, identifies happiness with a feeling of pleasure.
Our modern notion of “the good life” amounts to nothing more than a life of good feeling and pleasurable satisfaction. And, if we are honest with ourselves, that is the goal of most people for themselves and their children.
While this idea of happiness has been around as long as people have partied, our Classical and Christian ancestors were once smart enough to see its shallowness and dangers. One of the main problems with this idea of happiness is that it turns those who live by its creed into self-centered, hedonistic narcissists. Another problem is that it is ultimately impossible to fulfill the insatiable need for pleasure. As soon as we satisfy it here, we crave it there and we are left with a constant sense of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Another rock legend, Sheryl Crowe, captures this point in that catchy chorus, “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad. If it makes you happy, then why the [Heck] are you so sad?”
When happiness amounts to pleasure seeking, the focus of everything revolves around us and it creates a culture of self-absorbed individuals who can’t live for anything larger than their own selfish interests. As J.P. Moreland puts it in his book The Lost Virtue of Happiness,
“As parents, we tend to view our children as a means to our own happiness. Marriage, work, and even God himself exist as a means to making us happy. The entire universe ends up revolving around our internal pleasure. We become empty selves and we seek to fill that emptiness with consumer goods, calories, experiences, politicians, romantic partners, and empathetic therapists. We lose all sense of community, tradition, and shared meaning.”
Ironically, our pursuit of self-serving happiness results in a malaise of misery, apathy, and boredom. Let there be no doubt, slowly but surely, the contemporary notion of happiness is killing our relationships, our Christian walks, and our very lives.
Getting a Life
So we need to get a life. But where do we turn? Fortunately, God has provided the answer we need, though not the one we would expect. In his earthly ministry, Jesus declared,
“I have come that they might have life, and life to the full.”
But in a shocking reversal, Jesus reveals that happiness and abundant life are not to be found in self-centered pleasure-seeking, but rather in self-denial and sacrificial living:
“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul” (Matt. 16:24-26).
In this passage, Jesus reveals that the secret to happiness is a paradox that runs completely counter to our expectations and natural inclinations. It turns out that happiness in this life and the life to come is cross-shaped. Jesus is calling any who would follow him to a radically new kind of life from above, a life we are empowered to live now through his spirit.
As a community of people – children, teachers, parents, administrators, board members – devoted to life-long learning and the cultivation of the Christian mind and character, it is incumbent on us to unpack the paradoxes of living the good life found only in Christ and to cultivate the habits of happiness as taught by Christ. If we do, we will also influence our children. They will pick up a different set of values than what the culture dictates. Real Life, the Good Life, like anything of lasting value, does not come naturally. It takes discipline and effort because real life does not consist in something we get, but something we give.