As It Turns Out

Everyone has their own take on what the phrase Thomas Jefferson included in the Declaration of Independence means:

“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.”

Jefferson’s inspiration was philosopher John Locke.

No one is completely sure what Jefferson had in mind when he wrote “pursuit of happiness,” since he supposedly never publicly disclosed his meaning. But the holidays are over, so I wanted to find out what other people thought about it.

“The policies Jefferson advocated showed that he took seriously his own rhetoric that people have a self-evident, unalienable, God-given right to the pursuit of happiness and it is government’s responsibility to guarantee this right,” said Daniel Brook of the Huffington Post. “Without an activist government creating and funding institutions that offer this opportunity to all, he understood, the pursuit of happiness would remain an aristocratic privilege for the wealthy. To this end, Jefferson pioneered free public education, founding a public school system and the University of Virginia. From the start, Jefferson sparred with a conservative state legislature intent on under-funding his institutions.

Though this fight in early 19th-century Virginia may sound like ancient history, conservatives’ hostility to funding our public equalizing institutions should be familiar. In recent decades, a resurgent right has again fought to defend public higher education (not to mention public libraries, public hospitals, public broadcasting – public everything).

Today, Jefferson’s own University of Virginia receives only 8 percent of its budget from the state. Not surprisingly, only 8 percent of its students now come from the bottom half of the income distribution, a shocking – and intentional – resurgence of aristocratic privilege.”

Looking at happiness from another financial point of view, we’ve learned that – as the saying goes – “money can’t buy happiness.”

“Most disconcerting, happiness seems to have little relation to economic achievement, which we have historically understood as the driver of well-being,” said a New York Times editorial. “A notorious study in 1974 found that despite some 30 years worth of stellar economic growth, Americans were no happier than they were at the end of World War II ... Happiness, it appears, adapts. It’s true that the rich are happier, on average, than the poor. But while money boosts happiness, the effect doesn’t last. We just become envious of a new, richer set of people than before. Satisfaction soon settles back to its prior level, as we adapt to changed circumstances and set our expectations to a higher level.”

Economist Richard Layard, writing in The Times of London, agrees, “(W)e are no happier than we were 50 years ago, despite unparalleled economic growth … The main answer is that people are comparing their incomes with those of other people. They are trying to keep up with the Joneses. But in a richer society the Joneses are richer also, and it is impossible for the average person to raise his relative position. So the attempt at relative betterment fails.”

So, if Jefferson really believed that we have an inalienable right to “the pursuit of happiness” maybe the emphasis is on the “pursuit” part, not the “happiness” part. If it is, what does that mean to you?

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Sep 30
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates