Counting Your Blessings

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Today is July Fourth, Independence Day in these United States. After days of rain, the sun has appropriately broken through.Today is a day of celebration with parades and fireworks, but it is also a day to reflect. After all, it is a day to remember what the Founding Fathers said in the Declaration of Independence. The Preamble begins with these ringing words, “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 wonder if our founders thought about these Rights in a measured sense or whether they saw them as integral concepts, either present or not. I suspect it was the latter. Life is certainly present or not. We sometimes speak of someone being half-alive, but only as a figure of speech. Liberty is more difficult to characterize. But Liberty is also is not amenable to be measured on some scale. One is either free or not. What we mean by being free is, however, subject to argument. it is what some call an essentially contested concept. We all know about it, treasure it, but cannot exactly agree on what is means. But we do not attempt to measure it.

Happiness is different. Happiness has become something that we measure along some scale. For an experiment I used the terms, “happiness scale” to do a Google search and got hundreds of entries. Human welfare or quality of life has become a surrogate for happiness in the economics that drive policy in the West. And these qualities have become equated to a measure of monetary wealth. One consequence is that unless you score a 100 on a scale of 0-100, you will probably say why not shoot for a higher score. I believe that this interpretation is deeply involved in the unsustainable state of the world today. The drive for ever more of something called happiness, equated to material wealth, can be blamed for the excess levels of consumption and for the high levels of social breakdowns seen in the United States and increasingly in other affluent and rapidly developing countries.

I think our common sense about happiness is off the track. Happiness is more like the other two rights in the Declaration of Independence. It is a holistic quality that is either present or not. It is a sense that life is good. Not just like the silly brand of tee shirts using this slogan. One’s cares are being addressed. This doesn’t mean that everything is perfect or complete. Caring is a continuing process, never completed. Perfect relationships reflect the quality, not the amount, of continuous care. It seems kind of silly to me to think about measuring a marriage on a scale of 1 to 10. Mine is a happy relationship, period. I can conjure up dozens of reasons why, if asked, but they don’t add up to how I am happy.

One can count one’s blessings as a chain of discrete events, but it’s not the counting that matters. Happiness simply cannot be measured, nor found by accumulating more of anything. On the occasion of this Holiday, take a moment to think about what you care about (or tell yourself that you should care about), and understand that it is only with both Life and Liberty that you are able to be happy. "Pursuing" Happiness sounds like it is something that can be found and owned. Wrong. Being happy is a recognition that you are fully engaged in being human.

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