“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the Declaration of Independence states, are unalienable rights granted by our Creator, to be protected by the government. Unfortunately the definitions for these terms were never truly agreed upon and, being defined by men, change over time. When does the right to life begin? In the womb or after birth? To what extent are we free? Until we hurt ourselves or others? And happiness, that popular but pitiful word constantly bent to the whim of emotions and impulses.
At the time of the writing of the Declaration, the meaning of the word happiness was greatly debated. Some restricted its meaning to only the acquisition of material possessions. For others it meant absolute freedom. Others insisted that happiness was attained only through the practice of reason and truth.
Today, the meaning of happiness has been reduced to an almost exclusively emotional state. Happiness is predominantly seen as nothing more than a mood. The question, “Am I happy?” can be answered with a quick glance at the emotional thermometer. “No, I’m not happy, but I may be after I get some ice cream.” Today’s dictionaries reflect this reduction: “feeling or showing pleasure” But a closer look reveals that happiness is rooted in contentment and being joyful.
In the ancient Christian tradition, which preserves God’s revelation of truth to man, authentic contentment (“a state of peaceful happiness and satisfaction”) is rooted in accepting things as they are rather than longing for change. “He who has no desires,” says St. Dorotheos of Gaza, “has all he desires.” Trusting in God’s providence, and desiring salvation over everything else, the Christian accepts “all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that Your will governs all.” When we want what we have, we have everything we want. When we desire what comes to us, we are constantly achieving our goal. And as the angst to be a consumer, lusting with envy after everything we are capable of desiring but do not have, begins to die down, we find our minds and hearts freed up to actually be happy and begin working towards God’s goals for us.
Another secret to life lies in the truth that all the things we are trying to avoid (difficulty, discomfort, hardship, conflict, self-sacrifice, enduring, hunger, weariness, loss, etc.) are actually the very opportunities allowed by God in order for us to grow. “Rest is necessary,” the ascetical Fathers assure us, “but growth only occurs during times of struggle.” Or as St. Theophan puts it, “You will not find one saved person who was not a cross-bearer. It is for this reason that everyone is surrounded by crosses on all sides—so that we will not be hampered by having to look for crosses to bear, and so that we will not be far from the salvific power of Christ’s Cross. One can say it this way: Look around yourself and you will see your cross. Bear it as you should, uniting it with Christ’s Cross, and you will be saved.” This is what allows St. Paul to proclaim, “We rejoice in our suffering” (Rom. 5:3).
Rejoicing is a power we seldom use anymore; we are hardly even familiar with it. When we are distracted by longings for what we don’t have, joy escapes us. If we think of happiness as a feeling that comes over us occasionally, it’s important to know that rejoicing is a force of will, a choice, that sustains happiness indefinitely. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:4).
Desire for what we don’t have creates spiritual depression (despondency). Gratitude for what we do have creates contentment and joy. Let us practice this! Turn off the commercial-driven TV, close the advertisement-filled magazines, smart phones, and romantic novels. Contentment awaits you in the prayerful thanksgiving for what you actually have. In the context of your actual life there await you peace, satisfaction, salvation, and even perfection.