The Declaration of Independence promises “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But if you’re lucky enough to live in states like Virginia, New Hampshire, Vermont, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and a number of others, your rights get even better: the 18th century constitutions of all these states spell out not only a right to seek happiness, but also to obtain it.
Of course, blandishments about happiness meant little to enslaved persons or the Indigenous. And there were others—from people struggling at the margins to women trapped in abusive marriages—for whom happiness was inconceivable at the time. We are quick to identify those shortcomings today, pointing out where the founders, for all their farsightedness, were blind. Yet, even as many have worked hard to extend rights more broadly and raise expectations along the way, we have lost sight of some essential aspects of happiness that the founders clearly had in mind.
Consider first that however restricted their views, the founders certainly raised expectations for many, and that was revolutionary in its own right. For most people, happiness was not considered something that could be counted on or controlled. Where life was hard and unpredictable, and the world and its ways uncertain, suffering was the norm. The best one could hope for was to get through it relatively unscathed.
Today, if you feel your right to happiness has been denied, you can bring it up with a lawyer. But before you take your case to court, it’s worth thinking about how the founders conceived of happiness—and how best to find it for yourself. For in many ways, Americans have been wrestling with that conception ever since the Declaration was signed.
To go back to the source, consider the word happiness itself, which in every Indo-European language is cognate with luck: the English happiness, for example, derives from the Old Norse word happ, meaning precisely that—luck. Such wisdom was once widely received. “Call no man happy until he is dead,” exclaimed Solon, the great Athenian statesman, known for being one of the wisest men of ancient Greece. He and others knew that the gods were capricious and human fortune perilous, even for the luckiest. Christians for their part had traditionally conceived of happiness as a heavenly reward for God’s chosen, those who endured their earthly pilgrimage with sanctity and faith. But as for the pilgrimage itself, we should have no illusions: the world was a vale of tears. St. Augustine summed it up: “True happiness . . . is unattainable in our present life.”
That was a belief that the founders, like other groups in the 18th century including enlightened Christians, challenged outright. Neither a vindictive God nor the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune stood in the way of the human pursuit of satisfaction. The world was amenable to our understanding and control, and with foresight and planning we could make our happiness in it.
A benevolent Creator smiled on our efforts to be happy in this life as well as the next.
But if religion sanctioned the pursuit of happiness, it was up to human beings to secure it. That task entailed both a public and a private component. Indeed, the founders conceived of the “science of government” as what John Adams called “the science of social happiness.” In short, just as individuals had a right to pursue happiness, governments had a duty to help provide it.
Adams’ longtime friend and political foe James Madison wholeheartedly agreed. The “object of government,” he declared in “Federalist No. 62,” is the “happiness of the people.”
The best way to begin securing that happiness was to start with security itself. The founders often coupled happiness with safety, arguing that individuals had to be secure from lawlessness and anarchy, as well as from tyranny and the predations of the powerful, in order to flourish in their inherent rights to both liberty and the enjoyment of life.
And how best to enjoy? That was largely a private undertaking—to each their own. But the founders still had strong thoughts on the matter. On the one hand, they believed that enjoyment entailed the “acquiring and possessing of property.” They never equated property with happiness itself, but they did see the one as a means to the other, and they were right to do so. Not only is property a buffer against misfortune, it is also, in the form of income and wealth, correlated with life satisfaction. Although money can’t buy happiness directly, on average you are happier with it than without.
Modern researchers have found that money is only one piece of the happiness puzzle. The founders understood this. “Wherein consists the happiness of a rational creature?” Benjamin Franklin asked in 1732 at the Leather Apron Club, the Friday-evening discussion group he led for decades. “In having a sound mind, a healthy body, a sufficiency of the necessaries and conveniences of life, together with the favor of God, and the love of mankind.” Note that he says sufficiency, not surfeit. And to earn God’s favor and the love of mankind, one has to think about doing good not only for oneself but also for others—for family, for friends, for society as a whole. Private and public happiness, in effect, go hand in hand.
The risk of forgetting all of this was there from early on. Already, in the 1830s, the incomparable observer of American democracy, French aristocrat, historian, and philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, warned in Democracy in America that although “no one could work harder to be happy,” Americans seemed perpetually restless in the midst of their abundance—and often a little sad. The danger, as he saw it, was that the taste for personal pleasures risked turning Americans inward, setting them at odds with one another and leading them astray.
Attention has been called to this danger many times since, highlighting an abiding tension in American democracy between the pursuit of individual happiness and the happiness of the people. Arguably that tension has never been greater than today, when isolation, inequality, and social fracture feature daily in our headlines and lives. Recent survey data suggests that the amount of time Americans spend with other people, including friends, is falling. It is hard to be social, even on social media, when you are alone.
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There are no easy solutions. But it helps to bear in mind that the architects of the nation conceived of private and public happiness together, which is to say that the sound minds, healthy bodies, necessities, and conveniences of our fellow citizens matter along with our own.
If we want to fully exercise our right to not just pursue happiness but to obtain it, we would do well to keep that founding insight in mind.