Happiness in America isn’t what it used to be

TThe declaration of Independence Promise “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” But if you are lucky enough to live in states like Virginia, New Hampshire, Vermont, New Jersey, Massachusettsand a host of others, your rights get even better: the 18th-century constitutions of all these states enshrine not only the right to seek happiness, but also the right to attain it.

Of course, flattery about fortune meant little to the enslaved or to the aborigines. And there were others — from people struggling on the fringes to women trapped in abusive marriages — for whom happiness was unthinkable at the time. Today we quickly recognize these shortcomings and point out where the founders were blind despite all their foresight. Yet while many have worked hard to further expand rights and raise expectations in the process, we have lost sight of some essential aspects of happiness that the founders clearly had in mind.

First, consider that the Founders, no matter how limited their views, certainly raised many expectations, and that in itself was revolutionary. For most people, happiness was not viewed as something you could rely on or control. Where life was harsh and unpredictable and the world and its paths uncertain, suffering was the norm. The best one could hope for was to get through relatively unscathed.

If today you feel that your right to happiness has been denied, you can bring it up with a attorney. But before you take your case to court, think about how the founders envisioned happiness — and how you find it best for you. For in many ways, since the declaration was signed, Americans have wrestled with that notion.

To get back to the source, look at the Word happiness itself, which is related to luck in every Indo-European language: the English luck, for example, derives from the Old Norse word happy, that’s exactly what it means – happiness. Such wisdom was once widely accepted. “Don’t call anyone happy until they’re dead,” exclaimed Solon, the great Athenian statesman known for being one of the wisest men of ancient Greece. He and others knew that the gods were capricious and the fate of men dangerous, even for the luckiest. For their part, Christians had traditionally understood happiness as a heavenly reward for God’s elect, those who had to endure their earthly pilgrimage in holiness and faith. But as for the pilgrimage itself, let us have no illusions: the world was a vale of tears. Saint Augustine summed it up: “True happiness . . . is unattainable in our present life.”

This was a belief that the founders, like other groups in the 18th century, including enlightened Christians, openly questioned. Neither a vengeful god nor the slings and darts of insolent fortune stood in the way of man’s quest for gratification. The world was within our understanding and control, and with forethought and planning we could make our fortune in it.

A benevolent Creator smiled at our efforts to be happy in both this life and the next.

But if religion sanctioned the pursuit of happiness, it was up to the people to secure it. This task included both a public and a private component. In fact, the founders envisioned the “science of government” as what John Adams called it “The Science of Social Happiness.” In short, just as individuals had a right to seek happiness, governments had a duty to help bring about it.

Adams’ longtime friend and political opponent James Madison wholeheartedly agreed. The “object of government,” he explained in “Federalist No. 62” is the “happiness of the people”.

The best way to secure that happiness was to start with security itself. Often combining happiness with security, the founders argued that in order to thrive in their inherent rights to liberty and enjoyment of life, individuals must be protected from lawlessness and anarchy, as well as from tyranny and raids by the powerful.

And what’s the best way to enjoy it? This was largely a private endeavor – to each his own. But the founders still had strong thoughts on the matter. On the one hand, they believed that enjoyment involved the “acquisition and possession of property”. They never equated property with happiness, but they saw one as a means to the other, and they were right about that. Property is not only a buffer against unhappiness, it also correlates with it in the form of income and wealth life satisfaction. Although money can’t directly buy happiness, on average you can happier with it than without.

Modern explorers have found that money is only part of the happiness puzzle. The founders understood that. “What is the happiness of a rational creature?” asked Benjamin Franklin 1732 at the Leather Apron Club, the Friday night talk group he chaired for decades. “A sound mind, a sound body, an adequate supply of life’s necessities and comforts, together with the favor of God and the love of mankind.” Notice what he says Sufficiency, Not Abundance. And in order to earn God’s favor and the love of men, one must remember to do good not only for oneself but also for others – for family, for friends, for society as a whole. Private and public happiness go hand in hand.

The danger of forgetting all this was there early on. As early as the 1830s, the incomparable observer of American democracy, the French aristocrat, historian and philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, warned into Democracy in America that although “no one could work harder to be happy,” Americans seemed perpetually restless in the midst of their abundance – and often a little sad. The danger, he saw, was that the penchant for personal pleasures risked drawing in, conflicting, and misleading Americans.

Attention has been drawn to this danger many times since then, indicating an ongoing tension in American democracy between the pursuit of individual happiness and the happiness of the people. This tension has arguably never been greater than it is today, when isolation, inequality and social disruption shape our headlines and our lives on a daily basis. Recent survey data suggests that the Period Americans’ spending with other people, including friends, is declining. It’s hard to socialize, even on social media, when you’re alone.

Continue reading: Prolonged solitude can make you more susceptible to extremist views

There are no easy solutions. But it helps to keep in mind that the nation’s architects designed private and public happiness together, meaning that the healthy mind, healthy body, needs and comforts of our fellow citizens matter alongside our own.

If we are to fully exercise our right not only to seek happiness, but to have it, we would do well to keep this basic insight in mind.

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