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"The Pursuit of Happiness"

The Pursuit of Happiness

By Paul R. Blake (10/2/19)

            The second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence begins with: “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.”

            What was intended by the signers is that government is charged with the duty to provide circumstances whereby citizens are enabled to live free and to work for a peaceful, pleasant life. Over time, our culture has transformed the right to enjoy life into a frenetic obsession for endless personal pleasure. We have come to believe that happiness is a necessary condition for life, a state that must be maintained in perpetuity, rather than the special moments that pleasantly punctuate life under the sun.

            Solomon said that all of life and its emotional experiences are seasonal. “To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven … A time to weep, And a time to laugh; A time to mourn, And a time to dance” (Ecc. 3:1, 4). It is not reasonable, let alone possible, to endlessly maintain the time of laughter and happiness.

            I believe that the flaw in our reasoning is that we tend to believe happiness is a state of being, rather than a simply moments in our state of being. Therefore, we often try to force happiness into every moment, manipulating circumstances or persons or possessions in an effort to keep the happy moment sustained. Imagine having an itch on the back of your hand. You scratch it briefly and the itch goes away leaving you with a pleasurable moment of relief. If you attempt to recapture that moment of pleasure by continuing to scratch, not only will you fail to restore the pleasurable sensation of relief, you will begin to cause pain by the ongoing scratching.

            This is especially evident around the holidays. Perhaps we have a fond memory of a particular Thanksgiving dinner in the past when we were very happy, and we want to experience that same happiness again this year. In an effort to recreate it, we carefully prepare exactly the same foods in the same way; we eagerly invite the same people to dinner; we try to decorate the house and the table to look precisely the way it did when we had that happy Thanksgiving. It seems almost magical thinking to believe that if we can just get the formula right, we can bring back and maintain the happiness we once experienced. Instead, we often end up frustrated and saddened, either because we failed to duplicate the circumstances, or we discover that the duplicated circumstances did not bring back the happiness.

            How often have we thought:

            “If I could just get caught up with the bills and chores, then I would be happy.”

            “If I could just get all of my family and friends near me, then I would be happy.”

            “If I could just get a better job or a better house or a better spouse, then I would be happy.”

            “If I could just get, if I could just have, if I could just do, if others would just, if my spouse would just, if my boss would just, if the government would just, if the church would just, if God would just…?

            May I suggest that if we could have all of the “If I could justs” that we believe will make us happy, we still would not be happy. The reason is that our focus is on circumstances, people, and things. While they can remind us to appreciate happy moments, happiness itself is not based on those things.

            Instead of pursuing happiness, which will end in frustration and futility, chose to develop contentment. Contentment, unlike happiness, is a state of being. In fact, it is a state of being that is not impacted or affected by circumstances, people, and things. Contentment is cultivated by choosing to be at peace with circumstances, possessions, and people. It is choosing to accept that sometimes circumstances are what they are and cannot be changed, and therefore we will not let them rob us of our joy. It is choosing to enjoy the things that we have and refusing to pine after the things we wish we had but cannot obtain. It is choosing to love and accept others in spite of how we may be treated by them in return. We have the power to change ourselves, but will only discourage ourselves if we try to force others to change so that we can be happy.

            As we cultivate the state of contentment in our lives, we will pleasantly discover that those things that robbed us of our joy in the past are less powerful than we used to believe. In fact, we will be excited by how powerful we have become in refusing to let those things ruin our day. Moreover, we will learn that living in the state of contentment helps us to better appreciate and more fully experience the moments of happiness in our days. Living in contentment empowers us to thrive even on bad days by informing us: that hard times are only temporary, that they will pass, that they are only part of life under the sun, and that life under the sun will end in eternal glory.

            Beyond this, living in contentment allows us to store up happy memories in the treasure box of our mind, so that when difficult days come, we can take out the treasured memories in our minds and be sustained by them until the hard times pass.

            Recently, I drove home from the garden. I was driving a 14 year old truck that is beginning to show its age by periodically breaking down. Outside, it was 91 degrees in the middle of a prolonged drought. I was pressed for time and could only pick peas and okra; I could not hoe the weeds. I was going home to get back to work, knowing full well I would have to put in a long day to make up for the morning in the garden. And in the evening, I knew that I had to write checks and pay bills that would deplete our resources. My knees were sore, my hands were aching, and I was aware that I, too, am getting older and starting to lose ground.

            I had a choice at this point. I could choose to let these circumstances and things get me down and take away my peace of mind. Or, I could accept that while these things are true, they have no power to take away my state of contentment.

            Instead, I chose to think about driving a truck that still runs and still looks good. The sun was shining, the windows were down, and the people I passed along the way waved back at me. On the floorboard was a bucket full of peas and another with okra. I was going home to a job that has fulfilled me for 43 years, and that has supplied us with enough means to be comfortable. My sore knees and hands reminded me that I am still alive, and can still work in a garden, and that I am getting closer to my eternal reward. I chose to remain content, and was suddenly struck with the thought that in the midst of these circumstances, I am happy.

            The lesson: instead of pursuing happiness, choose to cultivate contentment, and happy moments will come to you.

            “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy--meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you… Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:6-9, 11-13).

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