It was Thomas Jefferson and America’s founding generation that set culture on a new course when they declared that all human beings had the inalienable right to the “pursuit of happiness.” It has been said that that phrase in the Declaration of Independence has done more to shape the sensibilities of the modern age than any other.
About one year ago, I was asked to teach a class on the American founding. During the months I prepared, I reexamined the founders–George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Mercy Otis Warren–and I was struck by two things. One was how differently they defined happiness compared to definitions that are current today. The other was the extent to which they sought to integrate private and public happiness. Nowadays we tend to think of happiness as a private good. We have lost the sense of “public happiness,” but it was much on the minds of the founders in their debates over what qualities of citizenship Americans should possess, and what kind of republic America should be. Allow me to elaborate.
The founders’ notion of private happiness is foreign to postmodern sensibilities. Their sense of well-being was informed by Aristotle and Cicero, who believed that happiness was inseparable from virtue. The starting point for any understanding of human flourishing is that we must obey our informed conscience. If you have a bad conscience, you cannot be happy. John Adams expressed this stern idea when he defined happiness as the ability to do what one ought. Where there is no virtue, there is no happiness. No abstract virtue, this. For many of the founders–men of the Enlightenment though they were–virtue was inseparable from religion. Performing the rituals that were pleasing to God–being in right relation to God–was essential to human flourishing.
The founders’ notion of public happiness also seems foreign to postmodern sensibilities, but it was based on balancing two great traditions in our Western heritage: the civic republican tradition that emphasized duties, and the natural rights tradition that emphasized (what else?) rights. The former stretched back to ancient Greece and Rome, while the latter was traceable to the European Middle Ages. The founders managed to balance both of these living traditions–the civic republican tradition that stressed each person’s duties to community, and the natural rights tradition that underscored the inalienable rights each person enjoys before the state. If there is too much emphasis on duties, the citizen lives unhappily in an authoritarian state. If there is too much emphasis on rights, the atomized citizen lives unhappily in anarchy or licentiousness, or both. One current of conversation at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was about achieving this balance of rights and duties in the “common wealth.” (Think about that word.) If the behavior and habits of citizens reflected the balancing of rights and duties, then individuals had a chance to live integrated–and thus relatively happy–lives in community. But balancing the two is the key to the integration, and the happiness.
The founders comprise one of the greatest generations of political leadership in any time and any place. No utopians, they were realistic about the pursuit of happiness. Essential to well-being were virtue in one’s private life and a judicious balance of rights and duties in one’s public life. The founders, I believe, got it right. In the end, they afforded me the best case studies for my hypothesis that happy people tend to make better leaders and followers than unhappy people.
I teach the founders. I believe that young Americans should learn from them. But it is difficult to do so because the founders lived in a different time, place, and mentality. They did not know a world transformed by industrial, urban, or high-tech revolutions, nor the radical ideas of Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Einstein. We face challenges of integration that they did not. Perhaps that is why, for many of us, happiness remains elusive. It is not just a mood, not just a fleeting spike of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Because it cannot be grasped by the prefrontal cortex alone, it remains a mysterious and irreducible state of being.
And yet, somehow, we know happiness when we experience it in ourselves, and we sense it when we see it in others. It’s people living their passion–building a boat, writing a symphony, educating their child, growing flowers in their garden—but it’s more. I believe the pursuit of happiness is linked to a primordial urge deep within us. It’s a mythic return to Eden as the vestibule to the Heaven that awaits. This urge leads humans in all cultures and in all eras to redeem their time and to sanctify their place.
In reality, of course, we never find Eden on Earth. But we should not despair. As Denis Waitley observed, even though happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn, or consumed, happiness is the spiritual experience of living every possible moment with love, grace, and gratitude.
To love, grace, and gratitude let us say “amen”!
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This an excerpt from my recent “sermon” on happiness, delivered at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on July 17, 2011.