I have a bone to pick with the Founding Fathers. Check out this well-known line from the Declaration of Independence :
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
I can accept “life” and “liberty” (although neither is a God-given right according to the Bible), but why did they say we have a right to “the pursuit of happiness”? And what does it mean to chase something like happiness? They didn’t say we have a right to be happy in the same way we have a right to live and be free. They just said we have a right to try to be happy. First of all, I think we forget the “pursuit of” phrase when we think about our rights as Americans. Secondly, I think we misunderstand happiness.
My modern definition of happiness:
a sense of contentment or well-being
derived from one’s external circumstances.
Maybe happiness had a different meaning back in 1776. After all, meanings do change over time. If you think you know what the Founding Fathers meant by happiness, feel free to post it in the comments. These days, happiness seems to mean comfort, convenience, even entertainment.
Look where this logic takes you: If I “need” my TV shows to make me laugh, which indicates that I’m happy, then I have a right to those TV shows. Or—*warning: I’m about to get political here*—if my lifestyle makes me feel good (i.e. makes me happy), regardless of its morality, then I have the right to live that way. Most Americans are in hot pursuit of happiness.
This idea—that we have the right to happiness—leads us to believe that we are entitled to entertainment. Why is the cost of cable/satellite television listed under ‘necessities’ in our budgets? Why do people take out loans to go on vacation? Why do many families subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime on top of their existing television bills? Why do our children play video games at the dinner table and have game systems in their rooms? Why do those same children complain when the DVD player in the minivan doesn’t work?
Entertainment has become
the preeminent priority
of the American populous.
Before I go on, let me clarify. There’s nothing wrong with being happy. I like it when everyone in my home is happy, and everyone else likes it when I’m happy: “When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!” Also, I watch TV, go the movies, attend concerts, and all that sort of stuff. There’s nothing inherently sinful in these activities (although, of course, we all need to guard what we see and hear). The issue on my mind for the last few months is this: the relentless pursuit of happiness through entertainment, as if it were the goal of life, the preeminent priority of the American populous.
A recent television commercial suggests that we should have access to our television, movies, and/or music even while we rock climb or horseback ride. I know they are using exaggeration to make a point, but it still makes me uneasy. Is constant access to entertainment really going to improve our lives? It feels like we’re entertaining ourselves into idiocy and social ostracism. Tony Reinke, posting at Desiring God, observes, “This is sloth at its deadly best: trying to preserve personal comforts through the candy of endless amusements.” And like the sugar in candy, entertainment is addictive. We have the freedom to eat as much candy as we want (Watch out, Halloween, here I come!), but we aren’t entitled to candy (at Halloween or any other time), and it certainly isn’t good for us to eat candy until our stomachs ache. The same is true of entertainment, which is why no one has to explain the new term, “binge-watching.” It reminds me of this.
Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. -Philippians 3:18b-19
Consider these six things we may lose when our minds are set on the earthly “pursuit of happiness.”
Loss of Rest
Entertainment is not rest or leisure. Our minds need rest just as much as our bodies. If we sit down to rest for a minute but we feel compelled to flick on the TV or scroll through Facebook, we’re not really resting. It’s a false high, like a caffeine buzz. Sitting on the porch, just watching the sunset, is restful. Watching TV is not restful for our minds. A long, face-to-face conversation with a friend, a brother or sister in Christ, is restful. Trolling Facebook, where you have 500 “friends” is not restful. Paul Maxwell said it well: “Don’t stop and collapse into mindless inactivity. That’s a cycle of laziness — fake, shallow rest — not rest.”
Loss of Logic
When we fill all of our ‘down time’—even the thirty seconds we wait at a traffic light—with diversions, we lose the ability to carry thoughts to their logical conclusions. It takes time to work through a problem, and our minds don’t always operate on an 8-to-5 timetable. I don’t know about you, but I get some of my best ideas in the bathroom. I may be wasting water in the shower, but I’m solving the world’s problems (or so I tell my husband)! Even right now, I’m tempted to “take a break” from this difficult writing and go check Twitter. Sometimes our problems feel like mental weightlifting, but if we drop the weights in the middle of the set, we’ll never get any stronger.
Loss of Empathy
In a recent interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Professor Sherry Turkle (author of Reclaiming Conversation: The power of Talk in a Digital Age) bemoans the loss of casual social interaction. She says, “Face to face conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do; it’s where we learn to put ourselves in the place of the other.” Authentic conversation is the incubator for empathy; it’s how we learn to express it and to seek it.
Authentic conversation is
the incubator for empathy.
As Turkle points out, if everyone is privately occupied, we will not converse, which means we will not learn to communicate our pain or share another’s pain. I wonder, is this why I cry over books and movies so much more than my children? Are they lacking empathy? (Not to mention how frequent portrayals of violence and death cause our children–and us–to become jaded to the real thing!)
Loss of Creativity
By constantly indulging in entertainment, we also lose creativity. Mind-wandering, and even a little boredom at times, fosters creativity and innovative thinking. Back in 2012, Irish TV writer/director Graham Linehan said, “The creative process requires a period of boredom, of being stuck. That’s actually a very uncomfortable period that a lot of people mistake for writer’s block, but it’s actually just part one of a long process. The internet has made it very difficult to experience that.” (Here’s an article about the link between boredom and creativity, if you’re interested. I found the Linehan quote there.)
Loss of Spiritual Intimacy
“If you’re constantly stimulated by being called away to the buzzing and the excitement of what’s on your phone, solitude seems kind of scary,” according to Professor Turkle in that same interview on Weekend Edition. I think we’re afraid that, if we have time to actually look inside ourselves, we won’t like what we see. We’ll be forced to pay attention to whatever difficult thing we don’t want to acknowledge or the change God has been asking us to make, so we pursue inauthentic happiness through the diversion of entertainment.
Consider this situation from my Bible study, Dwell: Mary, Martha & Lazarus (yet to be published). It comes from Luke 10:38-42, where Martha prepares a meal while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. I was writing about how we let ourselves be distracted.
Just for a minute, put yourself in Mary’s place: completely absorbed in Jesus’ words and thoughts, even in His facial expressions. Maybe you (not Mary—you, yourself) have been making excuses for a long time. Maybe you’re just scared to honestly look into the face of Jesus. Maybe the distractions are your distancing technique so that you don’t have to be real with God. If there were no distractions…nothing else to do…would you be comfortable sitting at the feet of Jesus?
Loss of Engagement
Have you ever had a fascinating conversation with a complete stranger on a bus or while waiting at the doctor’s office? Although I’m an introvert, I still remember several really interesting conversations with people I never saw before or since. But not since I got a smart phone. Professor Turkle says that we’re actually losing the ability to carry on a conversation.
Not only do we no longer have those pleasant, serendipitous conversations, but we’ve also forfeited God-orchestrated opportunities to share Truth. When our son started practicing sports, I thought it would be a great chance to get to know some parents and share Truth as the Holy Spirit provided openings. Instead, every parent sits on the bleachers absorbed in his or her phone or tablet. No one talks. 1 Peter 3:15 says, Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. They aren’t going to ask me anything–they aren’t even going to know about my Hope–if I look busy on my phone or if they prefer the ease of social media over the potential awkwardness of new social interaction. Sure, you might show a Christian YouTube video to your neighbor, and God might use it in your neighbor’s life, but can it replace an authentic relationship with that neighbor? I don’t think so.
So, Founding Fathers, what did you mean by “the pursuit of happiness”?
Somehow, I don’t think it was the mindless entertainment and deluge of distractions that we’ve established as the path to personal satisfaction in the 21st century. Entertainment is like mental junk food. It fills us up, but it doesn’t satisfy. When our mindset (back to Phil 3:19 again) revolves around self-indulgence through constant distractions or entertainment, we lose so much of what connects us to each other and to God. This vain pursuit of ill-defined happiness may just set the course for our destruction.
Have you given this any thought? What do you think we sacrifice when happiness or comfort become our highest priorities? I’d be happy to start a conversation about this in the comments below.