“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….” These words make up the heart of who and what America is as a nation. But what is this pursuit of happiness? What does it mean?
Originally, Thomas Jefferson, the chief writer of the Declaration of Independence, had gotten the idea of these natural, unalienable rights from the English philosopher, John Locke. But instead of using the pursuit of happiness, Locke described those natural rights as being life, liberty, and property. So why did Jefferson change property into pursuit of happiness?
While “Life, liberty and property” are all tangible, based upon qualities that are easily measured, pursuit of happiness is more intangible and difficult to define.
According to a footnote in Edward S. Corwin’s book, “The ‘Higher Law’ Background of American Constitutional Law”, “The phrase ‘pursuit of happiness’ was probably suggested by [eminent the 18th English jurist, Sir William] Blackstone’s statement that the law of nature boils down to ‘one paternal precept, that mans should pursue his own true and substantial happiness.’”
It should be clear that Jefferson thought very carefully about this use of words when he made the change to Locke’s original thoughts.
But what is happiness? It’s an emotion tied to many things. As Mary Pipher PhD noted in her book “Reviving Ophelia”, “Happiness is largely a matter of contrasts.” We may be healthy, wealthy and wise, but unless we see ourselves better off than others or to our lives in the past, it’s a feeling we rapidly lose under stress. Dr. Pipher also noted that, “Happiness comes not from using others, but from being useful.”
It seems that happiness depends on how we compare our mental states to things outside ourselves. It also comes from finding ways to serve others rather than just serving our own wants and needs. It seems there are two words to describe these precepts: gratitude and caring (for the needs of others).
One of the things that struck me as paradoxical is, that when asked what would make the super rich – the .1 percent happy – their answer was “20-30% more income.” Obviously, these super wealthy who were surveyed were both unable to look to their pasts to see how far they had come, nor, were they able to turn their focus to the needs of others.
This time of the year, when we give and receive presents, and expect ourselves to be happy “because everyone else is” is also often a time for many when their expectations of happiness do not match reality. That contrast is depressing. There’s a wistful desire for something more, just beyond our reach.
There are two thoughts I will leave you to consider. Rather than pursuing happiness, perhaps we should, as the Apostle Paul noted in his letter to the Philippians (4:11), to seek contentment: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”
To lower our expectations a notch from pursuit of happiness to contentment could help relieve our dissatisfaction and depression.
The final thought is that should we continue to follow Jefferson’s goal of the pursuit of happiness, we should see how far we’ve grown, and where we were in the past compared to now. Then we should get out of our self-centered boxes, and look to the needs of others. Serving others and being useful is a lot surer road to attaining happiness.
Thomas Jefferson set the tone for the nation when he crafted the ringing words of the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps we can obtain his goal by expanding our definition of “pursuit of happiness.”