On the pursuit of happiness

On this holiday on the day after independence day, I am posting again a reflection on what to me is one of the most intriguing phrases in the US Declaration of Independence. It is contained in the famous sentence:

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 have always found the insertion of the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” as a fundamental right to be appealing. One does not expect to see such a quaint sentiment in a political document, and its inclusion sheds an interesting and positive light on the minds and aspirations of the people who created that document.

But the problem has always been with how happiness is attained. And in one serious respect, the suggestion that we should actively seek happiness, while laudable, may also be misguided. Happiness is not something to be pursued. People who pursue happiness as a goal are unlikely to find it. Happiness is what happens when you are pursuing other worthwhile goals. The philosopher Robert Ingersoll also valued happiness but had a better sense about what it would take to achieve it, saying “Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.”

Kurt Vonnegut in his last book A Man Without a Country suggests that the real problem is not that we are rarely happy but that we don’t realize when we are happy, and that we should get in the habit of noticing those moments and stop and savor them. He wrote:

I apologize to all of you who are the same age as my grandchildren. And many of you reading this are probably the same age as my grandchildren. They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.

Yes, this planet is in a terrible mess. But it has always been a mess. There have never been any “Good Old Days,” there have just been days. And as I say to my grandchildren, “Don’t look at me, I just got here.”

There are old poops who will say that you do not become a grown-up until you have somehow survived, as they have, some famous calamity — the Great Depression, the Second World War, Vietnam, whatever. Storytellers are responsible for this destructive, not to say suicidal, myth. Again and again in stories, after some terrible mess, the character is able to say at last, “Today I am a woman. Today I am a man. The end.”

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, “You’re a man now.” So I killed him. Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a man can’t be a man unless he’d gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Good advice.

POST SCRIPT: More on flag fetishes

There were some interesting and informative comments on my post on flag fetishes.

One rule about the proper treatment of the US flag that is routinely violated is the use of the flag design on clothes. You can see this photo album of celebrities wearing the flag design on bikinis and underwear.


  1. says

    Your comment regarding your uncle as an “honest” life-insurance salesman struck me as an interesting qualifier.
    I believe that all of us, insurance agents or not, work in our self interest. My self interest lies in the feeling of satisfaction I get from doing business in the best interests of my clients.
    It is a great feeling to make a living by doing a good and competent job, regardless of the field of endeavor.

  2. says


    Actually the word was used by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I was just quoting him. But I too was struck by his use of the qualifier.

    I do not think that Vonnegut was casting aspersions on insurance salespeople. I think he was using the word ‘honest’ to contrast with his other uncle, in the sense of being down-to-earth and straightforward and not shallow and bogus.

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