Monday, March 14, 2005

What Do Americans Mean By "The Pursuit of Happiness" - Cont'd

Last week I posted a response to a search question that led a reader to my little blog. The reader asked, "What do Americans mean by the pursuit of happiness?" My thoughts, which can be found here, were that the right to pursue happiness is a personal one, granted by the creator, and first approached by John Locke in his work on natural law. Thomas Jefferson, with the benefit of Locke's work, built on the initial concepts and inserted the phrase into the Declaration of Independence. I believe, that while each American pursues happiness on a personal and thereby independent level, it is this pursuit that in many ways is responsible for American greatness.

Reader PDS, has some additional thoughts and sent them to me over the weekend. I like his take on the pursuit and what it means regarding the role of government and personal responsibility, so with PDS's permission, I give you the second Pursuit of Happiness treatise on, the pursuit of happiness:

Our host’s post on this topic got me to thinking, because it raises a fundamental issue of life, worthy of every thinking person’s examination.

I am reminded of a quote from the philosopher Robert Nozick in The Examined Life: “I do not say with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living-that is unnecessarily harsh. However, when we guide our lives by our own pondered thoughts, it is our life that we are living, not someone else’s. In this sense, the unexamined life is not lived as fully.”

What constitutes a fully lived life, or more apt here, the pursuit of happiness? Implicit in the Nozick quote is that one’s concept of happiness may change throughout life, but, ideally, the pursuit of this goal should not change. “Pursuit of Happiness” is a short phrase, and one might hope that not a lot of parsing is possible, but the meaning of the phrase truly does depend on which word of this phrase is given emphasis: i.e., which is more important, the pursuit of happiness, or happiness itself? I say the former.

Life is lived chronological order. Happiness is therefore a moving target. What made me happy is 15-20 years ago is not what makes me happy today. In 1988, I took a month and climbed and almost died on the coldest mountain on earth. The experience, notwithstanding an intense brush with danger, made me “happy.” Today I would never dream of climbing mountains in my spare time: my four year old daughter deserves better of me, my knees couldn’t take it, and I much more enjoy tending to my garden and reading people like Nozick (and, of course, our host). Just as hobbies change, so too does the extremely personal question of what constitutes one’s concept of happiness.

Why does the fluidity of happiness matter? It matters because it demonstrates that the “content” of happiness is personal, and, as such, government should not--and meaningfully cannot-- concern itself with this. Sorry, but your quantum of happiness is truly your own problem, and there is not much the Ted Kennedys of the world can do about it. In contrast, government can concern itself with protecting the pursuit of happiness, mainly by not screwing things up. When Thomas Jefferson grafted this compelling phrase onto our nation’s Declaration of Independence, he was making a very precise philosophical point: we are born with the natural right to pursue happiness, but we are not born with the natural right to happiness itself.

This distinction provides an interesting lens on the personal and the political, and bearing it in mind reduces some the political clamor that pervades the present age. If you find your government seeking to secure your happiness, be skeptical. Conversely, if life is to be lived fully, take responsibility for the pursuit of your happiness.

You just might be a happier person.


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