The Different Meanings of “Happiness”


One of our inalienable rights, according to the Declaration of Independence, is “the pursuit of happiness.”  But what does that mean?  Ken Myers shows that the concept of “happiness” has changed over the years, from an objective state of “blessedness” to the subjective feeling of “having fun.”

The Christian Post has recently republished Ken Myer’s essay “The Pursuit of Happiness” that was originally published in 2008 at Ligonier.  For classical writers, such as Aristotle, “happiness” had to do with living out one’s purpose and being in accord with the order of existence.  In Christian terms, “happiness” had to do with the sense of well-being that comes from living in harmony with God’s design.  Myer says that, for Christians,  happiness was synonymous with “blessedness.”

I would add that the English word originally meant “lucky,” having good fortune (“hap”).  Aristotle’s word translated “happiness” in the Nichomachean ethics as the purpose of life is εὐδαιμονία, meaning literally “good spirit,” hence, living and doing well.  The Latin word is felix, meaning fortunate or blessed.  For Christians, “fortune” is not simply a random “luck” from an impersonal Fate as in paganism but gifts that come from the hand of God.   This is evident in the Greek of the New Testament, whose word μακάριος means both “happy” and “blessed.”

This made me think of the Jerusalem Bible’s translation of the Beatitudes, which translates μακάριος as “happy” instead of “blessed.”

How happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Happy the gentle: they shall have the earth for their heritage.

Happy those who mourn: they shall be comforted.

Happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right: they shall be satisfied.

Happy the merciful: they shall have mercy shown them.

Happy the pure in heart: they shall see God.

Happy the peacemakers: they shall be called sons of God.

Happy those who are persecuted in the cause of right: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Happy are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you on my account.  (Matthew 5:3-11)

I like the way this translation “defamiliarizes” the beatitudes and helps me see them in a new light.  Behind the switch in wording, I suspect, was the thought was that people today don’t understand what “blessed” means.  But nor do they understand what “happy” means.

Today the concept has to do with feeling good, being up-beat, having a good time, having fun, having pleasant experiences, not suffering, enjoying life, etc., etc.

And yet, having pleasant feelings–which, like all subjective experiences come and go–is projected onto the objectively real world.  Individual feelings of happiness are turned into expectations, entitlements, and the highest life-determining value.

To the point that if I am not “happy,” in this sense, something is wrong.  If I’m not happy in my marriage–that is, if my spouse does not make me happy by giving me pleasant feelings all the time–I should get a divorce.

After all, I have a right to “the pursuit of happiness”!

Or, often, not experiencing this kind of happiness all of the time means that something is wrong with me.  Individuals who are depressed, melancholy, or suffering are made to feel that they are supposed to be happy and that any kind of negative emotion is some kind of personal failure.

But you can be depressed, melancholy, or suffering while still knowing your blessedness.  And having the blessing of God–which is something objective–can help you to endure the negative feelings that are often appropriate for life in this fallen world.  “Blessed are those who mourn.”  “Happy those who mourn.”

At any rate, these are my thoughts that have arisen from that essay, though it covers some different ground.  Read it yourself:  Ken Myers, Even Christians Can Have an Anti-Christian Understanding of What it Means to be Happy.

Also, for what “blessing” means, according to the Bible, read the book by my daughter, Deaconness Mary Moerbe, entitled Blessed.

Illustration by Chrisdesign via Free Stock Photos, Public Domain

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