Reflections on the Pursuit of Happiness

I’ve never been a fan of all the hoopla around national holidays, and never less so than during these dark times. The martial music, platitudinous bloviating, chest thumping, and flag waving annoy more than inspire me. What’s the point of listening to hypocrites sing America’s praises?

Like other prudent people I skipped the Fourth this year and, as usual, spent the morning with the Washington Post.

There’s a series in the comics section that provides brief histories of the region around the nation’s capital. That day, it described how Jefferson borrowed “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” from the earlier writings of philosopher, John Locke. Locke, however, used the word “estate,” (meaning property,) rather than the word “happiness.”

Happiness is not such an easy thing to define. Whatever it is, though, as we have oft been told (and oft forget,) money can’t buy it. Locke’s choice of word, as we interpret it today, might lead some people to think he contended liberty is good because it permits us to get rich and acquire property. Perhaps Jefferson selected the word “happiness” to avoid this implication. Jefferson might have been referring to Aristotle’s assertion that happiness is derived from “Being good and doing good.”

By the word “estate,” Locke, indeed, did include sovereignty over our material possessions among the many things our freedom grants us. “Possessions,” however, does not refer only to material ones. More precious possessions include our bodies, our opinions and our time and how we spend it. These, too, are our property which, in a democratic society, are safeguarded by our freedom and our rights. Further, both Locke and Jefferson asserted that as children of God, ALL people have EQUAL rights to such property.

A year after Locke penned the line that inspired Jefferson’s famous phrase, he did use the word happiness, saying it hinges on liberty. Why? Because liberty gives us “the freedom to choose the greater good over our personal desires.

Obviously riffing off of Aristotle, Locke made it clear happiness is not about having a lot of stuff or getting your own way all the time. On the contrary, happiness is the natural result of being virtuous. Responsible. Honest. Fair. Unselfish. I guess that makes you happy because you feel better about yourself, and, if others follow suit, you’re living in a much nicer world. Jefferson later wrote that practical actions, “utility,” is “the test of virtue.” This applies especially to the government. In fact, says Jefferson, the the whole purpose of an elected government is to act virtuously by doing what is best for all, not what benefits only certain socioeconomic, ethnic or religious groups, or those in power and their wealthy supporters. While JFK said, “Ask not what your country can do for you,” that didn’t mean it was all up to us. It’s a reciprocal contract. First and foremost, our government is required to be virtuous. Such a government might, in turn, inspire us to sacrifice some of our personal pleasures, preferences and desires for the good of the country. The end result would be happiness.

Our most sacred national holiday is more than a celebration of our freedom from a foreign power, our freedom to feather our own nests or other individual freedoms like speech or religion. At root, it celebrates virtue– virtue we should share in action as well as principle– virtues such as equality and justice, tolerance and respect. These are what our freedom and our form of government ideally exist to support. Unless we compel our government to join with us in supporting these virtues, the nation as a whole can never enjoy true happiness. Looking at it this way, the corruption, partisanship, selfishness and greed inherent in our current government and, sadly, in a large portion of fellow citizens, makes it clear why so many of us are so miserable.

This year I left it to others to sing the anthem, recite the pledge, scarf down hot dogs and “Ooh and Ahh” at the fireworks. Meanwhile, I live in hope that things will change enough between now and the next Fourth of July for me to feel more like joining the celebration.


  1. You are talking Utopia. You can’t help but be an optimist. Good, me too, I refuse to let the buggers get me down..
    I enjoyed this piece, I will read your others at leisure. Thanks, livingston


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