When Thomas Jefferson wrote that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were three unalienable rights endowed by our Creator, he believed we could pursue happiness but not obtain it. He got the idea from John Locke who believed happiness, though elusive, was the foundation of liberty.
In her book Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, Jayne Allen notes that according to Locke, and thus Jefferson, "there were so many contingencies involved with obtaining happiness that no person could realistically claim a right to obtain it; he could only claim a right to pursue it." Not everyone agreed.
Allen also notes that George Mason, another one of the founding fathers, wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, a document with which Jefferson was no doubt familiar in 1776. Mason mentioned “pursuing and obtaining happiness” among the “inherent natural rights” of the individual. His belief in the right to “obtain happiness” clashed with Locke's notion of the elusive nature of happiness.
Maybe happiness is elusive because we have the wrong idea about it. Perhaps our definition is skewed. “Happy” comes from the French and Middle English and describes something accidental or happening by chance. This kind of happiness is circumstantial and understood by many of us as the absence of adverse circumstances. Is this what the Founders had in mind when guaranteeing our right to pursue happiness?
In a lecture at Hillside College on John Adams, historian David McCullough noted that when Adams and the other Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all men possess the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” that what was meant by “happiness” was not “longer vacations or more material goods,” but rather “the enlargement of the human experience through the life of the mind and the life of the spirit.”
McCullough is on the right track, don’t you think? Happiness is more about internals than externals. Today, happiness has been reduced to instant gratification through happy meals, happy hours, and happy pills. However, the Founders had something else in mind. So did Jesus.
On a hill overlooking the beautiful Sea of Galilee, Jesus delivered his famous Sermon on the Mount. He began in Matthew 5:1-12 with eight simple but sublime beatitudes. You won’t find the word beatitude in the text of Scripture, but the dictionary defines it as “supreme blessedness” and “exalted happiness.” Jesus used the word “blessed” 9 times in 12 verses. It is translated from a Greek word that generally means “blissful” or “happy.”
Long before Thomas Jefferson penned the words of the Declaration of Independence, Jesus “blessed” the crowd of people on the Galilean hillside and talked about the pursuit of happiness. Unlike Jefferson’s and Locke’s view of happiness, Jesus taught that the blessed life is something we can both pursue and obtain.
So, who are the “blessed?” Who are the people in this life who pursue and actually obtain happiness? You might be surprised. It’s not who you think. If Gomer Pyle read the beatitudes, he would grin from ear to ear and shout, “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!”
According to Jesus, the surprising cast of happy characters includes the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.
The persecuted? The poor? The meek? Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But Jesus spoke with authority about the blessed life and the pursuit of happiness (Matt. 7:28-29). He gives us something to think about as we celebrate the God-given liberty we enjoy as Americans.