Sunday, July 17, 2011


The following essay served as the basis of my guest sermon at Fountain Street Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, on July 17, 2011. Because the congregation is latitudinarian, I chose to address a topic of near universal interest, happiness, and to ground it in several traditions. I would like to thank the Rev. Fred Wooden for inviting me to address the church.

A Vain Pursuit?

Imagine two different people. One of them discovers that she’s won the lottery and is suddenly worth millions of dollars. The other is run over walking to church; he survives but will suffer from paraplegia for the rest of his life. Now fast-forward one year. Who will be happier, the person who wins the lottery or the person who suffers from paraplegia? 

If you are like me and like most people, you’re confident predicting that the lottery winner will be happier a year from now. And we’re wrong. Dan Gilbert points out that real case studies show that the person who wins the lottery and the person who suffers from paraplegia will be about equally happy one year after their sudden change of fortune. (That's assuming they have roughly similar baselines of cheerfulness to begin with.) This morning, I hope to unpack the mystery of why this is so.

But first, I’d like to thank Rev. Fred Wooden and the Fountain Street community for inviting me to share some thoughts with you. Aware of the eminent men and women who have preceded me in this pulpit, I come here in humility and won’t take the approach of a guest speaker in a church across town who began by saying, “There are many ways to worship God – you in your way, and I in His.”

As a historian, I have developed some expertise in the American presidency. A couple of my friends kid me, saying that I’ve specialized in answering questions that people don’t ask. This morning I will depart from the usual expectation and address a question that is either in the foreground or background of your mind: How to be happier?

We ask the question in every stage of life. It is just one of those existentials. As mortals we are aware that every day brings us closer to the end of our time. So we want to get life right; we want our portion of happiness; so we chase after it in all kinds of things -- in people or nature, in adventure or habit, in myth or philosophy, in ritual or addiction, in therapy or worship, in new cars or new houses, in new spas or sprees at the mall.

We see a Niagara of ways this obsession with happiness inundates us: In shelf after shelf of self-help books generated by our therapeutic culture; in a cottage industry of so-called happiness coaches; in the Gallup Organization’s world poll in which more than a half-million people have participated when asked about their state of happiness and satisfaction; in the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey that’s been coming out since 1972; in the World Database of Happiness out of Rotterdam. (See In preparing for this morning, I was surprised to see the number of TED talks devoted to the topic.

So we are all thinking about it. You want it. I want it. They (out there) want it. The evidence is that Homo sapiens – which is Latin for “people are weird” – have been thinking about happiness seriously and systematically for at least 3,000 years. And yet – and yet – is it not striking that there is so little agreement? There is no consensus on defining happiness. There is no consensus on the qualitative difference between relatively enduring states of happiness vis-à-vis relatively temporary experiences of pleasure. There is no consensus on how to achieve this state of flourishing and wellbeing. There is not even a consensus whether happiness should be one of the ultimate goal of our efforts. Moreover, when you read the sages, prophets, and philosophers of the last 3,000 years -- then consider your own life – happiness has a surprising quality that often violates our everyday experience and common sense. 

Chinese ideogram of happiness
A Personal Survey

I began inquiry into happiness when, as director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, I searched out the link between happiness and leadership. My hypothesis was that happy people make better leaders and better followers than unhappy people, so I did two things: I thought about what I had picked up about happiness from others, and then I looked at what psychologists and social scientists had to say in scholarly studies. What did I learn from reflection on others' experience with happiness? 

1. Let’s start with individuals who practice the dominant religion of our culture, Christianity. During the Cold War, I taught German students in a Gymnasium. Some of my students were from Eastern Europe or traveled to see family there. From them I learned about the reality of Christian martyrdom. These students told me of relatives behind the Iron Curtain who had been physically and psychologically tortured yet, at the height of their agony, experienced a beatific vision of union with Christ that filled them with peace and joy. Try to get your mind around torture as a source of happiness.  

2. When I lived in Colorado, I used to visit my sister at a Taoist commune, Still Point, and listen to talks by Gia-Fu Feng. A disciple of Lao Tzu, Gia-Fu had journeyed from China to Big Sur to Colorado and taught about the Taoist tradition of wu wei that emphasized natural harmony in all our thoughts and actions. We could only be happy if we did not try to be happy, but surrendered our ego and lived effortlessly in harmony with the nature of things. Try to get your mind around surrendering your individuality as the way to happiness. 

3. When I talk to my cousin Christopher Clowery, now called Heng Sure, an ordained Buddhist monk and director of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, he helps deepen my understanding of “nirvana,” a concept built from two Sanskrit words indicating the “blowing out” of a candle or the fire of desire, greed, anger, and ignorance, so as to make one free of suffering. From my sister Pam, an ordained Buddhist nun now named Jin Hai, I learn that Buddhism is a religion without God and that its disciples surrender their ego (their distinction as individuals) to release themselves from Vesuvian desires. Try to get your mind around being happy by not wanting to be happy. 

4. When I was a senior in high school, I practiced Transcendental Meditation and learned from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the Vedic tradition that happiness is only attained in a transcendent state called “cosmic consciousness” when one’s being is absorbed into a larger reality like a raindrop falling into the ocean. Again, in such a tradition there is no being like our Western God, and no privileging of the individual. Try to get your mind around the idea that being a raindrop in the ocean is your happiness.  

5. When as a teenager I hitchhiked to Taliesin and Taliesin West to learn more about Frank Lloyd Wright and a life of creativity and good work, I discovered that the Fellowship at Taliesin sought not happiness so much as satisfaction. Satisfaction was found in the integrity and intensity of one's work. Try to get your mind around the thought that laboring is the source of your happiness.  

6. As an undergraduate, I read Elizabeth Kübler-Ross on death and dying, and discovered that a surprising number of people had their peak experience of happiness during the process of dying. I have since looked at David Casarett's work, Last Acts, and spoken to many families with a loved one in hospice care, and they speak of the peace and reconciliation their loved one experiences when the body begins to shut down. Try to get your mind around the awareness of dying as your happiness.

The examples in this little survey violate our common sense as Americans, do they not? We normally don’t associate happiness with persecution, loss of personality, extinguished desire, unceasing work, and the process of dying. On the contrary, we learn to pursue happiness in power, profit, pleasure, privilege, performance, prestige, and pride in getting our way.

General Social Survey (University of Chicago)

Flummoxed by all the unconventional ways people claimed to experience happiness, I next turned to the social scientific literature, starting with the General Social Survey conducted by the University of Chicago since 1972. It is one of the most thorough studies of happiness ever undertaken in the U.S., and it consistently shows that:

  • Climate has hardly anything to do with one's happiness. Hard as it is to believe, people in Michigan are basically as happy as people in California.
  • Americans grow happier as they grow older.
  • My generation, baby boomers, are not as content as other generations.
  • African Americans are less happy than whites.
  • Men are less happy than women.
  • The happiness of a people waxes and wanes from era to era.

Arthur Brooks

I also looked at the work of the behavioral economist Arthur Brooks, author of Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America – and How We Can Get More of It. He sought the sources of happiness in our values, behavior, lifestyle, culture, and even public policy. Brooks used U of C’s General Social Survey and research into identical twins separated at birth. He found that seven elements are particularly important in the calculus of happiness.

  • Having good DNA is essential. Genetics accounts for 50-80 percent of our baseline cheerfulness. That should not make us despair. We can work with the other 20-50 percent that is not genetic, so it’s important to get our values, behavior, and lifestyle right.
  • Practicing a religion is important. It turns out that 30-40 percent of our proclivity to worship is genetic, and the rest is environmental, so you should choose a church whose doctrines you believe are true and that provides a rich, regenerating experience.
  • Having good friends and meaningful relationships is also important to enjoying life (en-joy-ment – literally, being in a state of joy).
  • Giving voluntarily to others increases our well-being.
  • Having pathways of opportunity to fulfill our potential is important to our flourishing.
  • Having the feeling of earned success beats the alternative.
  • And -- here is the darker side -- perceiving that we are relatively better off than our neighbors makes us feel better. Whether it's a bigger car, nicer house, prettier yard, more prestigious job, or more successful children, we like to compare how we are doing with others.

Notice that winning the lottery did not make the list?

Brooks has also looked into very specific demographic slices. He discovered, for example, that the average age a man feels most miserable is 44 years old. That’s when:

  • his wife figures out he a bore;
  • a strong divergence emerges between his sense of success and his earning power;
  • and his kids turn into teenagers!

Daniel Kahneman

After reading Arthur Brooks, I turned to Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli-American psychologist and Nobel laureate. He asks, why is it that people can go through an experience and not think they are happy, but then remember the experience as a happy one? The converse, too. People can go through an experience convinced that they are happy, but remember it as an unhappy time. Kahneman concludes that there are two psychological selves at odds within us, and they confuse experience and memory. There is a difference between being happy in your everyday life – in your current experiencing self – and being happy about your life in the narrative you keep. When we reconstruct our past, we are choosing not so much between experiences, as between memories of experiences. And when we look toward the future, we look at what we are about to go through as anticipated memories. We are beings that consume memories. Thus we are constantly negotiating between these two selves.

The Founders and Happiness

Remember my saying a few minutes ago that happiness has a surprising quality that often violates our everyday experience and common sense? In my research, one of the surprises came from something familiar -- the American founding. It was Thomas Jefferson and America's original "greatest generation" that set culture on a new course when they declared that all human beings had the inalienable right to the "pursuit of happiness." It has been said -- by David McCullough and Jacob Needleman, among others -- that that phrase in the Declaration of Independence has done more to shape the sensibilities of the modern age than any other.

About one year ago, I was asked to teach a class on the American founding. During the months I prepared, I reexamined the founders – George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Mercy Otis Warren -- and I was struck by how differently they defined happiness compared to definitions that are current today. Their definition sought to integrate private and public happiness. Nowadays we tend to think of happiness as a  private good. We have lost the sense of "public happiness," but it was much on the minds of the founders in their debates over what qualities of citizenship Americans should possess, and what kind of republic America should be. Allow me to elaborate.

The founders' notion of private happiness is foreign to postmodern sensibilities. Their sense of well-being was informed by Aristotle and Cicero, who believed that happiness was inseparable from virtue. The starting point for any understanding of human flourishing is that we must obey our informed conscience. If you have a bad conscience, you cannot be happy. If you are a slave to your passions, you cannot be happy. John Adams expressed this stern idea when he defined happiness as the ability to do what one ought. Where there is no virtue, there is no happiness. No abstract virtue, this. For many of the founders -- people of the Enlightenment though they were -- virtue was inseparable from religion. Performing the rituals that were pleasing to God -- being in right relation to God -- was essential to human flourishing.

The founders' notion of public happiness also seems foreign to postmodern sensibilities, but it was based on balancing two great traditions in our Western heritage: the civic republican tradition that emphasized duties, and the natural rights tradition that emphasized (what else?) rights. The former stretched back to ancient Greece and Rome, while the latter was traceable to the European Middle Ages. The founders managed to balance both of these living traditions -- the civic republican tradition that stressed each person's duties to community, and the natural rights tradition that underscored the inalienable rights each person enjoys before the state. If there is too much emphasis on duties, the citizen lives unhappily in an authoritarian state. If there is too much emphasis on rights, the atomized citizen lives unhappily in anarchy, licentiousness, or narcissism. One current of conversation at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was about achieving this balance of rights and duties in the "common wealth." (Think about that word.) If the behavior and habits of citizens reflected the balancing of rights and duties, then individuals had a chance to live integrated -- and thus relatively happy -- lives in community. But balancing the two is the key to the integration, and thus to the happiness.

The founders comprise one of the greatest generations of political leadership in any time and any place. No utopians, they were realistic about the pursuit of happiness. Essential to well-being were virtue in one’s private life and a judicious balance of rights and duties in one’s public life. The founders, I believe, got it right. In the end, they afforded me the best case studies for my hypothesis that happy people tend to make better leaders and followers than unhappy people.


I teach the founders. I believe that young Americans should learn from them. But it is difficult to do so because the founders lived in a different time, place, and mentality. They did not know a world transformed by industrial, urban, or high-tech revolutions, nor the radical ideas of Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Einstein. We face challenges of integration that they did not. Perhaps that is why, for many of us, happiness remains elusive. It is not just a mood, not just a fleeting spike of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Because it cannot be grasped by the prefrontal cortex alone, it remains a mysterious and irreducible state of being.

And yet, somehow, we know happiness when we experience it in ourselves, and we sense it when we see it in others. It’s people living their passion – building a boat, writing a symphony, educating their child, growing flowers in their garden -- but it's more. I believe the pursuit of happiness is linked to a primordial urge deep within us. It's a mythic return to Eden as the vestibule to the Heaven that awaits. This urge leads humans in all cultures and in all eras to redeem their time and to sanctify their place. 

In reality, of course, we never find Eden on Earth. But we should not despair. As Denis Waitley observed, even though happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn, or consumed, happiness is the spiritual experience of living every possible moment with love, grace, and gratitude.

To love, grace, and gratitude let us say “amen”!


Below are some resources out the various traditions of happiness that I consulted while preparing these remarks:

Confucius on Happiness

here, here and, with a lot of modern psychology added, here.

Ancient Greeks and Romans on Happiness

St. Thomas Aquinas: "Happiness is the conscious possession of a good."

Scottish Enlightenment Thinkers on Happiness

Francis Hutcheson portrait and prose on happiness here.

Darrin M. McMahon book here.

Daniel N. Robinson article here.

America's Founding Generation on Happiness

John Adams on the link between happiness and virtue: The happiness of the individual is the end of man. The happiness of society is the end of government. Upon these points, all speculative politicians, divines, and moral philosophers will agree. All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue. Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Mahomet, not to mention Jewish and Christian authorities, have agreed in this. ~close paraphrase of John Adams, letter to George Wythe, 1776

Where did Thomas Jefferson's notion of the "pursuit of happiness" come from? One of the few books annotated by Jefferson was Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, written by the Scottish moral philosopher, Lord Kames (1696-1782), a leader of the "moral sense" school that argued that human beings had an inner sense of right and wrong. Lord Kames, also known as Henry Home, provided the philosophical foundation of the phrase, "pursuit of happiness," which was included by Jefferson as an inalienable right of mankind in the Declaration of Independence. ~paraphrase from the Library of Congress's Jefferson collection

Happiness -- the product of civic virtue and public duty: As a scholar well-versed in the ideas and ideals of the French and English enlightenments, Jefferson found his greatest inspiration in the language and arguments of English philosopher John Locke, who had justified England's "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 on the basis of man's "natural rights." Locke's theory held that government was a contract between the governed and those governing, who derived their power solely from the consent of the governed and whose purpose it was to protect every man's inherent right to property, life and liberty. Jefferson's theory of "natural law" differed in that it substituted the inalienable right of "the pursuit of happiness" for "property," emphasizing that happiness is the product of civic virtue and public duty. The concept of the "pursuit of happiness" originated in the Common Sense School of Scottish philosophy, of which Lord Kames was the best-known proponent. ~from the Marine family website

Religion, morality, and knowledge are three essential components of the happiness of a people. From Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance: Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

Happiness linked to holiness.  The Continental and Confederation Congresses were the first national governments of the United States. The majority of men who served in Congress believed that the "public prosperity" of a society depended on the vitality of its religion. Nothing less than a "spirit of universal reformation among all ranks and degrees of our citizens," Congress declared to the American people, would "make us a holy, that so we may be a happy people." 

David McCullough links happiness and education in the thought of Adams and Jefferson: I think we need history as much as we need bread or water or love. To make the point, I want to discuss a single human being and why we should know him. First off, he is an example of the transforming miracle of education. When he and others wrote in the Declaration of Independence about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," what they meant by "happiness" was not longer vacations or more material goods. They were talking about the enlargement of the human experience through the life of the mind and spirit. They knew that the system of government they were setting up would not work if the people were not educated. "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "it expects what never was and never will be."

George Will
"America was born in recoil against an overbearing executive's 'repeated injuries and usurpations' (the Declaration of Independence); modern conservatism was born in reaction against executive aggrandizement, first by Franklin Roosevelt, then by his acolyte Lyndon Johnson....
"The idea of American exceptionalism is obnoxious to progressives, who, evidently unaware of the idea's long pedigree (it traces to Alexis de Tocqueville) and the rich scholarship concerning the idea, assume it is a crude strain of patriotism. America, Tocqueville said, is unique because it was born free -- free of a feudal past, free from an entrenched aristocracy, and [free from a] established religion.
"The American Revolution was a political, not a social, revolution; it was about emancipating individuals for the pursuit of happiness, not about the state allocating wealth and opportunity. Hence our exceptional Constitution, which says not what government must do for Americans but what it cannot do to them.
"Americans are exceptionally committed to limited government because they are exceptionally confident of social mobility through personal striving. And they are exceptionally immune to a distinctively modern pessimism: It holds that individuals are powerless to assert their autonomy against society's vast impersonal forces, so people must become wards of government, which supposedly is the locus and engine of society's creativity." ~George F. Will, "A Congress that Reasserts Its Power," Washington Post, January 16, 2011 [at]

Jack P. Greene, Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of Modern Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988).

Robert Hamowy article here.

History of Political Ideas article here.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, "The Lost Meaning of 'The Pursuit of Happiness,'" William and Mary Quarterly 21:3 (1964). 

Naomi Wulf, "Liberty, (the Pursuit of) Happiness, and the Anxious Democrat: Conflicting Views of Liberalism in the Early Republic," Cercles 17 (2007). 

Freud on Happiness
Carmelo Scudari PDF here, here, here,  


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