This is not true with English. Our language is in a constant state of flux. New words come into existence and old words are dropped or redefined. There are expressions that have emerged from our past which we still use but with little thought or understanding as to their origin or original meaning. We use sayings like “rule of thumb”, “the whole 9 yards”, “raining cats and dogs”, “knock on wood”, for example. When we hear them, we sense the connotation and understand the intended meaning even though, strictly defined, they make no sense.
Usage determines meaning and a word whose meaning has taken a turn for the worse is “happiness”. Our Founding Fathers stated that, among the unalienable rights inherent in our humanity as designed by our Creator, is “the pursuit of happiness”. What was their intended meaning?
The word “happiness” is rooted in the word “happen” which in turn is rooted in the word “hap,” meaning “luck.” In the 18th century it referred to what was happening in a person’s sphere of activity that was positive and beneficial as it affected the person’s relationship to family, community and to God. The word could be understood as “righteous” or “rightness.” Happiness was not considered a state of mind or a feeling. It was a state of being. True happiness produced a pleasant feeling as people saw their standing in the community and before God as proper what it ought to be. Feeling good was the result of happiness, not happiness itself.
It is important that we understand this. The unalienable right to pursue happiness is not the right to pleasant feelings. Nor is it the right to never have any unpleasant feelings. It is the right to pursue circumstances that would provide a right standing before God and man. This right standing is apart from feeling. There will be times when this pursuit produces unpleasant feelings. Paying a bill, submitting to authority, fighting for freedom, or asking for forgiveness are all things that are unlikely to feel good at the time, but they are the foundation stones of true happiness.
Another word that is not well understood is the word blessed. It is sometimes defined as happiness, but this is incorrect. Blessedness is the state of being where a person is right before God and community.
In the New Testament where Jesus said, blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, he was not speaking about their feelings. To be destitute in spirit, to long for righteousness does not sound like pleasant feelings. It is a state of being where one pursues God and in doing so, finds peace and joy.
Our Founding Fathers did not envision a government that would provide all we need to make us feel good but rather one that would not stand in the way of our individual and collective pursuit of happiness blessedness.
by Dan Helgerson