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What did Thomas Jefferson mean by the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence?

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… “ the role of government in the pursuit of happiness is to improve the lives of people”

The words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence are always worth reading. However, over the years, many of them have been misunderstood, and some of them have been called constitutional rights of Americans while they were simply the goals that the colonists had in breaking away from Britain and King George III.

The words that have been debated most often are these,

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.

Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence

The first is that all “men” are created equal. However, the final part of that sentence is also one that many have misconstrued. A right to life and liberty were not enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and this simply means that each man is right inalienable rights by his creator.

Life and Liberty are understandable. The pursuit of happiness, another goal of the break from King George III, is a little more elusive.

To understand this, Emory University interviewed a professor of theology and religion about what the “pursuit of happiness” in America is, or what it should be.

His words are interesting on the celebration of the anniversary of the date on which it was issued.

Dr. Brent Strawn

The analysis by this religious expert places some of the context in the words and beliefs of Jefferson,

More than just fireworks and cookouts, the Fourth of July offers an opportunity to reflect on how our founders envisioned our new nation — including the Declaration of Independence's oft-quoted "unalienable right" to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

But our contemporary understanding of "pursuit of happiness" is a thinner, less meaningful shadow of what the Declaration's authors intended, according to Brent Strawn, who teaches religion and theology in Emory's Candler School of Theology and Graduate Division of Religion.

"It may be that the American Dream, if that is parsed as lots of money and the like, isn't a sufficient definition of the good life or true happiness. It may, in fact, be detrimental," notes Strawn, editor of "The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us About the Good Life." (Oxford University Press, 2012)

As we celebrate Independence Day, Strawn discusses what "pursuit of happiness" is commonly thought to mean today, what our founders meant, and how a "thick" understanding of happiness can be a better guide for both individuals and nations.

“What the Declaration of Independence really means by

'pursuit of happiness’,” Emory University, July 3, 2018

Interpretation of words

Does the word pursuit simply mean that people must be granted the right to seek happiness — or to actually attain it?

Strawn believes that it does the latter,

I think most people think "pursuit" in that phrase means "chasing happiness" — as in the phrase "in hot pursuit." This would mean that "the pursuit of happiness" has to do with "seeking it" or "going after it" somehow.

[How does this differ from what our nation's founders meant when the Declaration of Independence was written?]

It differs a lot! Arthur Schlesinger should be credited with pointing out in a nice little essay in 1964 that at the time of the Declaration's composition, "the pursuit of happiness" did not mean chasing or seeking it, but actually practicing happiness, the experience of happiness — not just chasing it but actually catching it, you might say.

This is demonstrated by documents that are contemporary with the Declaration, but also by the Declaration itself, in the continuation of the same sentence that contains "the pursuit of happiness" phrase. The continuation speaks of effecting people's safety and happiness.

But the clearest explanation might be the Virginia Convention's Declaration of Rights, which dates to June 12, 1776, just a few weeks before July 4. The Virginia Declaration actually speaks of the "pursuing and obtaining" of happiness.

Interview with Dr. Brent Strawn, Emory University, June 30, 2014

The Declaration also goes beyond those words

After Jefferson wrote about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that the creator promises, he also wrote this challenge for the new government,

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence

So, what does this mean in terms of the role of government in the U.S.A.?

The question to Dr. Strawn was this, followed by his analysis,

The next part of the sentence in the Declaration of Independence states "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men." What does it mean to say, as you have written, that "the Declaration makes that obtaining and practicing of happiness a matter of government and public policy, not one of individual leisure or pleasure"?

I think it means, at least in part, that the happiness of which the Declaration speaks is not simple, light and momentary pleasure à la some hedonic understandings of happiness ("do what feels right"; "if it makes you happy…"). In the Declaration, "the pursuit of happiness" is listed with the other "unalienable rights" of "life" and "liberty." Those are qualities of existence, states of being. You are either alive or dead, free or enslaved.

Governments have something to say about those states by how they govern their citizens. If happiness is akin to life and liberty —as the Declaration and the original meaning of "the pursuit of happiness" say — then we are not dealing with momentary pleasurable sensations ("I'm happy the sun came out this afternoon") but with deep and extended qualities of life (the happiness one feels to be cancer-free, for instance).

According to the Declaration, the extended quality of happiness — what we might call the good or flourishing life — is or should be a primary concern of government. That means it isn't just about my happiness, especially idiosyncratically defined, but about all citizens' happiness.

Interview with Dr. Brent Strawn, Emory University, June 30, 2014

What does happiness entail?

Lovers of Alexander Hamilton and capitalism espouse the belief that earning money solves all problems. However, how many billionaires are truly happy? What does happiness mean in that contest, if money in itself causes so much unhappiness?

If we operate with a thick definition of happiness, then we have to think beyond simplistic understandings of happiness — as important as those are — and think about the good life more broadly. It may be that the American Dream, if that is parsed as lots of money and the like, isn't a sufficient definition of the good life or true happiness. It may, in fact, be detrimental.

Empirical research in happiness has shown that more money does not, in fact, make a significant difference in someone's happiness. The ultra-rich are not any happier than the average middle-class person (and sometimes to the contrary). So, moving beyond just the hedonic aspects of happiness, researchers have demonstrated the importance of positive emotions, positive individual traits (e.g., virtues), and positive institutions.

Governments could (and should, according to the Declaration) enable such things. To lift up just two examples that I think a lot about myself, the government needs to take action to guarantee all citizens' health and safety. A thick definition of happiness certainly includes many things — and sick people can in fact be very happy, can live flourishing lives — but positive institutions that keep us healthy and safe are, to my mind, specific and concrete ways the government can help a country's "gross national happiness" index (the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan actually measures its country's GNH!).

Food, medicine, safe living conditions — those are a few important building blocks of a happy life that governments can address.

Interview with Dr. Brent Strawn, Emory University, June 30, 2014


Thus, the role of government in the pursuit of happiness is to improve the lives of people. That means taking them from enslavement, giving them the tools to succeed in society like education and health care, and by keeping them from suffering starvation in old age.

Strawn makes this final conclusion based on his knowledge of the Bible,

… both the Bible and positive psychology give us a very thick understanding of the word "happiness." It is not about breakfast being yummy. It is about human flourishing, the good life, the obtaining and experiencing of all that can be glossed with the word "happiness," but only carefully and usually with a few sentences of explanation required to flesh it all out.

A thick understanding of "happiness" means that we have to think beyond only pleasurable sensations or think about redefining "happiness" altogether if "pleasure" is the only thing it means. If that's the only thing "happiness" means anymore, then we have a case of "word pollution" and we need to reclaim or redefine the word or perhaps use a different one altogether, at least for a while.

Redefining simplistic, thin definitions of "happiness" means that we come to terms that the happy life does not mean a life devoid of real problems and real pain. Those, too, are part of life and can even contribute to human growth and flourishing, which means they can and must be incorporated into a thick notion of happiness. As one positive psychologist has said: The only people who don't feel normal negative feelings are the pathologically psychotic, and the dead. Or, according to the biblical book of Psalms, the only people who live lives of constant comfort and pleasure are the wicked!

Interview with Dr. Brent Strawn, Emory University, June 30, 2014

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