On the pursuit of happiness

On this Independence Day holiday, I am repeating a post 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 inclusion of “the pursuit of happiness” as an inalienable right to be appealing. One does not expect to see such a quaint sentiment in a revolutionary political document, and its presence sheds an interesting and positive light on the minds and aspirations of the people who drafted it.

But while happiness is a laudable goal, the suggestion that we should actively pursue it may be misguided. Happiness is not something to be sought after. 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.” [My italics]

Kurt Vonnegut in his last book A Man Without a Country (2005) 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.”

This is really good advice that I try to follow because it does work. It makes you realize that you may be happier than you think you are.


  1. hyphenman says


    My understanding of happiness in this context is that quality of life associated with an occupation chosen by the individual as opposed to one chosen or even forced upon by others.

    That, of course, makes the inclusion particularly pernicious in light of the number of slaves living in the colonies 241 years ago.



  2. Chiroptera says

    Mano Singham: People who pursue happiness as a goal are unlikely to find it. Happiness is what happens when you are pursuing other worthwhile goals.

    I’ve always interpreted “the right to the pursuit of happiness” to mean that it is up to each individual to discover for themselves what will bring themselves fulfillment, and that they even have the right to make their own mistakes as they make this discovery.

  3. secondtofirstworld says

    From a Buddhist standpoint I agree, that pursuit itself can be misguided insofar it leads to clinging, which in turn leads to suffering. I speak from unfortunate first hand experience growing up in a culture, that both craves and begets bigotry, and has an expression “if my cow died, the neighbor’s cow should die too”. If fiction could leap off of pages, and become reality, where lost souls in Dante’s Inferno drag others down, that’s us in a nutshell.

    I’ve sought and found happiness here, namely tolerance and understanding, which should be a default human setting, but sadly isn’t.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    I wonder if the word “happiness” might have had a (perhaps subtly) different meaning at the time. It wouldn’t be the only such word.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Rob Grigjanis @ # 5 (& others indirectly): I wonder if the word “happiness” might have had a (perhaps subtly) different meaning at the time.

    My understanding has it that “happiness” at that time & place meant something more like “economic security” or “way to make a living”. Certainly the absence of those comes close to “unhappiness” in modern English.

  6. kevinalexander says

    I think that they put ‘Life, Liberty and the Happiness’ because they are the three things puritans hate above everything else. Evolution is all about competition. Social animals need each other but they still can’t turn the competitive thing off so they attack.
    The triggers are other’s displays of happiness. What’s more annoying than the laughter in the next room? What’s more enraging than kids on your lawn? What spikes your blood pressure more than the thought of someone else having sex?

  7. se habla espol says

    Ages ago, I read a line in a science fiction story that seems to give a much better POV on the “pursuit of happiness” idea. It pointed out that a most precious right is the right to go to hell in one’s own way.

  8. se habla espol says

    Where did the word “aline” come from in the comment above? It should read “a line in a”.

    [Ah, the thrills of autocorrect! I changed it to the way you wanted it but in doing so, I too was first autocorrected, changing ‘line’ to linen’-MS]

  9. Heidi Nemeth says

    I learned it was Thomas Jefferson who wrote the pursuit of happiness into the Declaration of Independence. I learned that just about the time there was genetic confirmation that his slave, Sally Hemmings, bore his descendants. Given the times, and that Sally Hemmings was his wife’s half sister, I imagine Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness included the then socially unacceptable desire to consort with Sally and her children. And that he would have been glad to have declared independence from his wife in pursuit of his own happiness and that of his mistress/slave and their offspring.

  10. says

    Heidi Nemeth@#10:
    Its comforting to think that Jefferson may have cared for Hemings, except that he didn’t free her upon his death, though I believe he freed some of her rape-children. All the other slaves remained with the estate. Nice guy. He also took money from Tadeusz Kosciusko (left as a bequest) to free some slaves. He pocketed it.

    Jefferson was a spendthrift and a rotten businessman, fond of his luxuries and dilettante lifestyle -- that was the happiness he pursued.

  11. flex says

    I was taught that “Happiness” in the context that Jefferson was writing was more related to the freedom from tyranny than the need to allow people pursue the feeling of joy. I think this is largely borne out by other writings of Jefferson from the same period, as well as the rest of the Declaration of Independence.

    Much of Jefferson’s writings at this time deal with the seemingly arbitrary nature of English rule over the colonies, and Jefferson provides a number of examples of acts by the Crown or by Parliament which would have been illegal in England, but were considered legal in the colonies. As an example, there was an Act which prevented iron ore from being made into steel implements in America, but the colonies were required to purchase steel tools from English manufacturers. Ore which was mined in America, shipped to England, made into tools, and then shipped to the colonies who had to pay a premium for them because of the cost of transportation.

    My take on it is that Jefferson, at this time, felt that granting royal monopolies, or other laws which prohibited specific industries, or regulated commerce in a fashion which prevented investment or competition, were a problem. That his idea of a “pursuit of happiness” is more about allowing men to enter any (legal) area of commerce or industry without arbitrary distinctions preventing them from doing so by governments/tyrants. Success or failure would depend on their individual talents, that’s why it’s “pursuit” rather than “success”. But I believe that “happiness” in the Declaration is more about every man is allowed to seek his own level of economic security, whether that means taking great risks for a possibly great reward or finding safe (but not exceedingly remunerative) employment and being happy with the life-style that such a choice brings.

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