In the last post we looked at some of the reasons why the pursuit of happiness is such hard work. The first difficulty we noted was having a wrong definition of “happiness.” After all, if we don’t know what happiness actually is, we are unlikely to find it, or recognize it when we do.

When the Declaration of Independence was written, happiness did not mean what it means today – a subjective emotional state associated with a hedonistic and usually selfish pursuit of personal pleasure.

Etymologists have traced the word to the Old Norse language where it originally meant “luck” or “chance,” with Old English adopting and developing it to mean “success” “good” or “contentment.”

In 1725, it acquired a more philosophical or political flavor when Francis Hutcheson wrote about happiness in An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue.

That action is best which accomplishes the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers; and that worst, which in like manner occasions misery.

Community Happiness
That connection between civic responsibility and happiness was at the forefront of 18th century political thought and was what the writers of the Declaration of Independence had in mind in 1776 when they wrote of our right to pursue happiness.

In his 2005 lecture at the National Conference on Citizenship, US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said that for the framers of the Declaration of Independence, “Happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.”

Vocational Happiness
In other words, the pursuit of happiness was more about giving to society than self-gratification. That also jives with the fact that the word “pursuit” was then most commonly associated with a person’s work or calling. You “pursued” your vocation.

Putting this together we can say that, for the Founders, to pursue happiness was to serve one’s community in one’s calling, one’s daily work.

Religious Happiness
However, other documents encourage us to understand happiness in an even broader and deeper sense, to include morality and religion.

For example, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 affirmed:

The happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality, and . . . these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality.

This goes beyond the individual, and even beyond the individual’s relationship to society, and includes the individual’s relationship to God.

Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 also agrees that “Religion, morality, and knowledge, [are] necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind…”

Historian David McCullough and author of John Adams and 1776 said in a 2006 lecture at Hillsdale College:

When [Adams] and others wrote in the Declaration of Independence about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ what they meant by ‘happiness’ wasn’t longer vacations or more material goods. They were talking about the enlargement of the human experience through the life of the mind and the life of the spirit.

In We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution, historian Mortimer Adler concluded that the Founders idea of happiness was the “ancient ethical conception of happiness as a whole life well-lived because it is enriched by the cumulative possession of all the goods that a morally virtuous human being ought to desire.”

And again, in contrast to our selfish ideas of happiness, Adler notes that the Founders saw this moral and virtuous happiness as something we can work together to help others enjoy. He wrote:

The pursuit of happiness must be cooperative not competitive. We do not have the right view of it unless we see it as something which men can help one another to achieve – instead of achieving it by beating our neighbors.”

A Very Different Happiness
In summary, we can say that the Founders view of happiness was community-focused not self-centered; it was about work and vocation rather than leisure and pleasure; and it was religious and moral rather than secular and immoral. How unexpected! How counter-intuitive! How different to today’s version of happiness! No wonder it is so rarely experienced and enjoyed.

  • Kathy

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. I never thought about it in this way. Thank you for explaining and sharing it.