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the Pursuit of Happiness

I read an interesting article a few weeks ago.  (Time Magazine, July 8-15 issue, pg 38+)  It was about what the Founding Fathers, specifically Jefferson, had in mind when he penned “…the pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence.  I am sure those of you who paid attention in US History class in high school are quite aware of what the word happiness meant to them, but this discovery was eye-opening and discouraging to me.

Aristotle and the Greeks had a strong impact on these leaders who declared their independence.  The Greeks believed people found meaning in their relationships with other human beings.  In fact, the Greek word for happiness, eudaimonia, was associated with good conduct and generous citizenship.  Thus, those who first read Jefferson’s words “the pursuit of happiness” interpreted it to mean “the pursuit of the good for the whole” because to them the good of the whole was critical to the good of the individual.  Another way to think of it is “the pursuit of individual excellence that shapes the life of a broader community”.

The idea that I am not the central focus of the “pursuit of happiness” sounds crazy.  Happiness, in this culture, is about more possessions, feeling good, power, and living extravagant lifestyles.  Yet that isn’t what Jefferson had in mind.  His pursuit of happiness does not free me to do whatever I want because it gives me immediate pleasure.  It does not excuse me to take the easy way because the right way is difficult.  It isn’t just about me.

It’s about loving one another.  It’s about doing good when good is hard.   It’s giving grace to people who I don’t really like because I count on grace from others every day.  It’s pitching into an activity that’s good for the community even if I don’t see how it’s going to help me.  It’s putting aside temporary feeling to gain long-term positive results.

There is nothing wrong with personal happiness, and there is certainly personal responsibility involved in happiness.  However, to what ends will I go to achieve it?  Who must weep so I can laugh?

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