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The American meaning of happiness

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We fought for our independence to guarantee these rights. The first two are self-explanatory, but the third means different things to different people, never mind people of different eras. Yet how we define it determines whether we find the happiness we pursue.

The American meaning of happiness, originally, was scripturally based, articulated in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In The Message translation of the Bible, Paul writes:

“I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty.  Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am."Philippians 4:12-13

Many are tempted to think of material wealth when they think of using their independence to pursue happiness. Adam Smith, however, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, also connected happiness directly to God. Smith explained that we “are under the immediate care and protection of that great, benevolent, and all-wise Being, who directs all the movements of nature; and who is determined, by his own unalterable perfections, to maintain in it, at all times, the greatest possible quantity of happiness."

Smith later reiterates that same point.  “The idea of that divine Being, whose benevolence and wisdom have, from all eternity,” declared Smith, “contrived and conducted the immense machine of the universe, so as at all times to produce the greatest possible quantity of happiness.”  Our Forefathers, Founding Fathers, the Enlightenment philosophers who directly influenced them, theologians, and the American clergy, all tied happiness directly to God, His providence, and our obedience to Him. We secure our independence and it results in prosperity, but prosperity is not the end in and of itself.

In the New Testament Jesus tells the parable of the young rich man to illustrate what true happiness is (See Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10: 17-31, and Luke 18: 18-30). Jesus illustrates the difficulty due to human nature to achieve true happiness, yet it is accomplished by aligning with the Laws of God; being obedient to Him and following Jesus and His standards. This is the Happiness that our Forefathers and Founding Fathers articulate in their writings, compacts, and rhetoric, and that which theologians and Christian jurists refer to.

The great British jurist, Sir William Blackstone, articulates this definitively in 1753 in his Commentaries on the Laws. Blackstone, aligning with Natural Law, writes, “the Creator is a being not only of infinite power, and wisdom, but also of infinite goodness, he has been pleased so to contrive the constitution and frame of humanity, that we should want no other prompter to inquire after and pursue the rule of right, but only our own self-love, that universal principle of action.

Blackstone connects civil liberty, the sole purpose of any civil government and specifically the only purpose of the American government, with happiness as obedience to God and His Laws. “Civil liberty, the great end of all human society and government,” declares Blackstone, “is that state in which each individual has the power to pursue his own happiness, according to his own views of his interests and the dictates of his conscience, unrestrained, except by equal, just, and impartial laws.” Blackstone continued, “Laws are, therefore, the just and necessary limits of natural liberty.  Political liberty, on the other hand, is that state in which the individual enjoys civil liberty with security; a security, as the experience of history shows, only to be attained by the force of public opinion, formed and influenced by an untrammelled press, and by the legislators being at stated intervals chosen by the people and from the people, upon whom their enactments are to operate (Sir William Blackstone, 1753, Commentaries on the Laws of England).”

With this Blackstone ties consent of the govern, happiness in obedience, and political and civil liberty together, in the language and mind that Jefferson and the Continental Congress would use to formulate the opening of the Declaration of Independence and moral contract for the young Confederate Union.

What does Pastor Samuel Langdon tell us in 1788 that this results in?  “By this,” expounds Langdon, “you will increase in numbers, wealth, and power, and obtain reputation and dignity among nations.”  And if you relinquish this practice, you will, “Else, the contrary conduct will make you poor, distressed, and contemptible (Samuel Langdon, 1788, “The Republic of the Israelites an Example to the American States.”).” When you make God your end, instead of wealth, you prosper anyway. America’s source of happiness was and is alignment with God, as explained in scripture.

Jim Huntzinger is the President and Founder of Lean Frontiers, Inc., which develops knowledge and learning communities on the Lean Enterprise for business and industry. With a background and experience in manufacturing and operations, he has also extensively researched the history and development of American manufacturing and also published several books on the lean business model, manufacturing history, and economics.

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