Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness

From the beginning of the country known as the United States of America, the pursuit of happiness has been a national goal. At least those words are part of the Declaration of Independence.
What constitutes happiness, though, and how it is to be achieved are not immediately evident. But there have been many widespread studies about happiness, and various happiness indexes have been devised.
Partly on the basis of some of these indicating that “the world is getting happier,” Zack Beauchamp claimed that 2013 was the best year ever, as I wrote about in a recent blog posting.
For example, the Legatum Institute has developed a “prosperity index” of the world’s countries. On the basis of that index, which is “a mixture of traditional economic indicators alongside measurements of well-being and life satisfaction,” the world’s happiest (and saddest) countries are listed in a recent Forbes article.
In support of Beauchamp, happiness (or at least prosperity) has increased worldwide in the five years the Legatum Institute has been doing its research. (And in 2013, according to this index, the U.S. is the 11th happiest country in the world; Canada is third and Japan is 21st.)
More significantly, a lengthy (150+ pages) U.N.-related “World Happiness Report” was released last fall. One online article about that report is titled, “Is the world becoming a happier place? Contentment has nudged up around the globe, UN report says.” (According to this study, the U.S. is the 17th happiest country, one place behind Mexico.)
The latter report’s rankings are based on a “life evaluation score,” which takes a range of factors into account, including income (measured by GDP per capita), healthy life expectancy at birth, freedom to make life choices, social support, corruption and generosity.
In recent years there has also been an increase in the study of “happiness economics.” (You can check the Wikipedia article on that here.) And three years ago an Australian film was produced with the title “The Economics of Happiness.” On Wednesday, June and I watched that thought-provoking film online (for $5).
Canadian Mark Anielski is a person who has been heavily involved in the study of happiness economics. He is the author of The Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth (2007).
Next Thursday evening, Jan. 28, Anielski (b. 1960) will be giving this year’s “Binns lecture” at William Jewell College. The title of his talk is “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Genuine Happiness.
Anielski will also be the keynote speaker at the WJC-sponsored Sustainability Summit, which will be held at the Kauffman Foundation Conference Center on Feb. 8. The title of that talk is “Genuine Wealth in Kansas City.” It is free and open to the public.
Anielski defines happiness as “spiritual well-being.” In that connection, perhaps the pursuit of happiness (as well as life and liberty), especially if done in Jesus-shaped spirituality, means seeking happiness for others as well as for oneself.
It is interesting how the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are almost always interpreted in a personal or individualistic sense. However, if we have, or want to have, spiritual well-being, perhaps seeking happiness for all will be one’s primary pursuit.
“There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” is the title of an excellent article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic. Emily Esfahani Smith, the author, suggests that the pursuit of meaning is superior to the pursuit of happiness.
Or, it might be argued, it is the pursuit of meaning by seeking the happiness of others that produces true happiness and genuine wealth.


  1. Thanks for the post, Leroy, and the references to the Binns lectures with Mark Anielski. I am teaching a new Core Curriculum Capstone this term entitled, "The Economics of Well-Being." It allows me some outlet for my new interest in the economics that influence religious ideas, but also it provides an interdisciplinary platform to surface criteria of well-being (I'd prefer this to happiness, myself). One thing both Anielski and the New Economics Foundation ( mention is that about 50% of our ability to be "happy" is genetically based. Like all genetic predispositions, our environment and our ability to cope shapes what we actually experience. Still, that is only a part of the story, too. And, I am finding what a complex challenge it is to delimit criteria of well-being that apply to all. Regarding Smith's notion of meaning (in the Atlantic Monthly article to which you referred), I'm not confident that it is any less an amorphous and undefinable term than happiness, precisely because of the variables that shape it.

    1. Milton, thanks for your helpful comments. I much appreciate you reading and responding (and so early!) to this new blog posting.

      I didn't realize that you were teaching a course on this very subject. That means, though, that you know more and certainly have thought more about the subject than I have.

      Still, I think that I would like to stand by the emphasis on meaning over happiness.

      Granted, "meaning" is, like happiness, an amorphous and somewhat undefinable term as you say. But nevertheless, perhaps it is more valuable for all concerned for people to pursue meaning more than happiness.

  2. I like your phrase Jesus-shaped spirituality. I am going build a sermon around that thought. And borrow that phrase as a title if I may.

    1. Brent, good to hear from you again.

      Actually, "Jesus-shaped spirituality" is an oft-used phrase in a fine book I am currently reading: "Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality" (2010) by Michael Spencer (1956-2010).

      I don't mind you referring to my use of the term, but Spencer should be given credit for it--and I highly recommend his book, although he is quite critical of the organized church.

  3. From Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman:

    "I vote with meaning over happiness, for happiness does not give one meaning, while the pursuit of meaning can make one happy."

  4. And then this from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson, who was a personal friend of Thomas Merton:

    "A searching blog, Leroy. Merton challenged the notion that our human goal is happiness, which we usually associate with pleasure and feeling good. He joined Augustine in asserting that our true goal is 'the Good.' Pursuit of that goal could well diminish our pleasure in things we seek, e.g., wealth. You seem to take a similar position."

  5. I think “meaning” is hugely important and would vote for “meaning” over “happiness” in a heartbeat. But happily we don’t have to choose only one or the other. Similarly, “well-being” is no doubt more worthwhile for public policy consideration than “happiness” standing alone, but I think there are important lessons to be learned from consideration of “happiness” separated out from income, wealth, longevity or any other objective measures. And it’s interesting how happiness seems to have become a sexy topic. The Forbes’ headline is “The World’s Happiest (and Saddest) Countries”, which focuses on a Prosperity Index that uses 89 variables, none of which appear to be subjective “happiness.”

    I’ve been intrigued by the “pursuit of happiness” issue for some time and favorably impressed with books like The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt; Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert; Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton; and The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner. For Christmas, my daughter Lauren got me The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin, and we are going through it together.

    What fascinates me most about studies of actual happiness over the decades (which are generally based on questionnaires about people’s subjective sense of happiness) is that tremendous increases in income and wealth in a country have almost no impact on its happiness levels once minimal needs are met. I think about that most concretely with the size of housing, which has dramatically increased in the US since WWII, but has reportedly had very little impact on happiness over that time. And dramatic differences in happiness around the world have little if anything to do with national income or wealth. But it may well have to do with spiritual/religious belief providing meaning and connection, which is the conclusion of an article entitled “Religion is a sure route to true happiness” in today’s Washington Post at

    1. I wasn't trying to post anonymously, but couldn't seem to get the system to post my name. -- Keith S.

  6. I believe the entire phrase is important in understanding the final terms, namely "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." We are not promised happiness, but rather the pursuit of happiness. Taken in the context of life and liberty, this clearly involves a self-directing process. Like Don Quixote, we are each on a quest. A key part of the quest is figure out the definition of the quest. What we are not called to be is mere cogs in someone else's plan. And Americans tend to get rather prickly when we discover that has happened to us.

    Obviously, anyone who thinks about this will discover he or she wants to matter, to mean something. However, a reasonable amount joy and pleasure is highly desired as well. In our finitude, we run into limits on all terms, whether life, liberty or happiness is considered. So we find ourselves making painful choices. This is what the pursuit is all about. We want our choices to be our choices, not someone else's.

    Sometimes this puts us into considerable conflict, the greatest fights are as likely to be right against right as right against wrong. The ferocious debate over abortion has a lot of this in it. At its most basic level it is the right of life against the right of liberty. Discovering that basic rights are still limited and conditional is a painful thing.

    Leroy leads us through some of the efforts that have been made to find a way around this. While a "prosperity index" or a "life evaluation score" may sound like crass measures, they are necessary if we are ever to find our way out of some of the thickets we find ourselves in when right collides with right. Sometimes death is not an enemy, sometimes sorrow is the road to joy. We have to remember that the foolishness of God defeats the wisdom of men. We have to remember that sometimes we can be so righteous that we are wrong.

  7. Thinking Friend Dan O'Reagan send these comments yesterday:

    "Materialists try to equate happiness with money and wealth, as if man were an economic animal. Man is more than one of Borden's fat cows, chewing its cud in a verdant pasture. Jesus said if a person gains the whole world and loses his own soul, he has made a bad bargain (Matt. 16:26).

    "In the Bible, happiness and blessedness are synonyms for each other. Jesus began his ministry with telling people how to be happy. We call that the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. Happiness has to be prioritized. It seems to me that some of the wealthiest people on earth are also some of the most unhappy people on earth."

    1. Dan, thanks for sending your pertinent comments. I appreciate your reference to the Beatitudes. As you indicate, happiness and blessedness mean the same thing. In some Bible translations the Beatitudes begin with the word "Happy" rather than "Blessed."

      But it is also worth noting that the blessedness or happiness comes as a by-product, the result of doing something else other than pursuing happiness.

  8. As the old lyric went, "We sure could use a little good news today." Probably more than happiness, we need hope. Devotees of religion should know the value of hope, because life certainly offers its share of troubles to all.

    I believe Thomas Jefferson's "pursuit of happiness" had evolved from George Mason's "pursuit of opportunity", which had evolved from John Locke's "pursuit of property" or just "property". The latter was important because of the government's ability to take it away. All are important concepts which need to be reviewed occasionally, especially when the government (including the judiciary) attempt to limit these, or an emperor decides to impose his will.