Office Hours

Pursue Happiness

with Theology Professor Brent Strawn

The Declaration of Independence grants Americans an oft-quoted "unalienable right" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

But our contemporary understanding of that pursuit is a thinner, less meaningful shadow of what the authors intended, according to Brent Strawn, professor of religion and theology at Candler School of Theology and Graduate Division of Religion.

“It may be that the American dream, if that is parsed as lots of money and the like, isn’t a sufficient definition of the good life or true happiness. It may, in fact, be detrimental,” notes Strawn, editor of The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us about the Good Life. Strawn discusses what “pursuit of happiness” is commonly thought to mean today, what our founders meant, and how a “thick” understanding of happiness can be a better guide for both individuals and nations.

3 Ways to Pursue 'Thick' Happiness

1. The most important thing is to realize that the happy life is about more than just me: my health, my wealth, my safety and security.

A robust understanding of human flourishing means it is for all, and that means that our “pursuit” of happiness must transcend narrow nationalisms and thin tribalisms. We would not permit, say, one political party to flourish and deny the chance for another to do the same, or our daughters to flourish but not our sons. Why, then, are we satisfied to let some neighborhoods in a city languish? Why are we willing to let some countries deteriorate? Not because we are committed to the “unalienable right” to happiness, but because we are selfishly committed to a narrow, individualized understanding of localized hedonism. But, as the positive psychology literature shows (and the biblical book of Ecclesiastes knows this too), more pleasure or more “stuff” will never bring true happiness. So, first and foremost, we have to think more globally, more organically. In the republic, all citizens should flourish, and in the global village, all persons should flourish.

2. Thinking about happiness as a “global village” issue shows that human flourishing will only be achieved if we take better care of our world. 

This is a truly transnational issue. All humans share this planet and therefore all humans—and all governments—must take responsibility for its care, particularly in redressing the lack of care that we have exercised for far too long. Without doing so, there will simply be no place for humans to flourish. Could it be any more simple?

3. It is increasingly clear that important things like food, medicine, and safe living conditions cannot always wait for the slow movements of governments. 

Positive psychology has highlighted the crucial role of positive institutions, including—when they function at their best—families, workplaces, and communities of faith. These must be ready to do the hard work of helping others flourish when the government proves ineffectual. When the government is effective and rightly functioning as one such positive institution, I firmly believe we will see far less “enforcement,” whether via the police or military, and far more “empowerment.” In the Bible, the prophet Isaiah envisions a time where everyone will turn in their weapon and melt them all down to make more farm equipment. That is not a bad vision of thick happiness: for both humanity and the world.

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