Connecting Columbia Union Seventh-day Adventists

Jennifer A. Herdt of the Yale Divinity School expounds on “Why the Pursuit of Happiness is a Bad Idea.”

Is the Pursuit of Happiness a Bad Idea?

Story by Doug Walker

“Why the Pursuit of Happiness is a Bad Idea” was the provocative opening talk presented recently at the 40th annual G. Arthur Keough Lectureship sponsored by the Washington Adventist University (WAU) Religion Department, located in Takoma Park, Md. This year’s Lectureship featured keynote speaker Jennifer A. Herdt, the Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics and Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the Yale University Divinity School.

“It may seem self-evident that we are always in search of happiness. In fact, though, the pursuit of happiness is self-defeating and therefore wrong-headed. We confuse happiness with our proper end: living well or worthily,” said Herdt. “The only kind of happiness worth having is found in living well.”

Herdt’s second lecture, “The Promise of Natural Law for a Secular Age," explored moral languages. “For what moral language should Christians reach in deeply divided and pluralistic social contexts? While the longstanding tradition of natural law has at times been invoked in deeply problematic ways, it offers a promising framework within which Christians can with integrity engage with others in the task of ordering well our common lives—and of ordering these lives to God," she said. 

“I’ve wrestled with myself,” Herdt declared, and found that happiness is “a problematic pursuit.” 

During her weekend visit to the university, Herdt also addressed the Faith and Reason Sabbath School Class at the Sligo church on the WAU campus. Herdt is the author of Putting on Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices.

“Dr. Herdt's deep and brilliantly researched lectures on our human search for happiness and our responsibility to a higher moral law were immensely stimulating, timely and inspiring,” says Mikhail M. Kulakov, WAU professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy, who organized the Keough Lectureship. “There was a lot of excitement on our campus about this year's lectureship, and we were not disappointed.” He adds, “This is truly the signature event of our WAU Religion Department, and we want to give it our very best.”

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