What the Declaration of Independence really means by 'pursuit of happiness'

By Laura Douglas-Brown | Emory Report | June 28, 2016

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"The pursuit of happiness" means more in the Declaration of Independence than simply chasing a fleeting feeling.

Brent Strawn

Religion professor Brent Strawn advocates for a "thick" understanding of happiness that includes social concerns and even encompasses sorrow.

Editor's note: Since this interview was originally published on June 30, 2014, it has consistently ranked among the most read articles in the Emory News Center. As the Fourth of July holiday again approaches, Emory Report spoke with Professor Brent Strawn about why a "thick" understanding of "the pursuit of happiness" may be even more important in our current political climate. His additional answers appear at the end of the interview.

More than just fireworks and cookouts, the Fourth of July offers an opportunity to reflect on how our founders envisioned our new nation — including the Declaration of Independence's oft-quoted "unalienable right" to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

But our contemporary understanding of "pursuit of happiness" is a thinner, less meaningful shadow of what the Declaration's authors intended, according to Brent Strawn, who teaches religion and theology in Emory's Candler School of Theology and Graduate Division of Religion.

"It may be that the American Dream, if that is parsed as lots of money and the like, isn't a sufficient definition of the good life or true happiness. It may, in fact, be detrimental," notes Strawn, editor of "The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us About the Good Life." (Oxford University Press, 2012)

As Independence Day nears, Strawn discussed what "pursuit of happiness" is commonly thought to mean today, what our founders meant, and how a "thick" understanding of happiness can be a better guide for both individuals and nations.

The Declaration of Independence guarantees the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." What do you think the phrase "pursuit of happiness" means to most people who hear it today?

I think most people think "pursuit" in that phrase means "chasing happiness" — as in the phrase "in hot pursuit." This would mean that "the pursuit of happiness" has to do with "seeking it" or "going after it" somehow.

How does this differ from what our nation's founders meant when the Declaration of Independence was written?

It differs a lot! Arthur Schlesinger should be credited with pointing out in a nice little essay in 1964 that at the time of the Declaration's composition, "the pursuit of happiness" did not mean chasing or seeking it, but actually practicing happiness, the experience of happiness — not just chasing it but actually catching it, you might say.

This is demonstrated by documents that are contemporary with the Declaration, but also by the Declaration itself, in the continuation of the same sentence that contains "the pursuit of happiness" phrase. The continuation speaks of effecting people's safety and happiness. But the clearest explanation might be the Virginia Convention's Declaration of Rights, which dates to June 12, 1776, just a few weeks before July 4. The Virginia Declaration actually speaks of the "pursuing and obtaining" of happiness.

Why does this difference matter?

Seeking happiness is one thing but actually obtaining it and experiencing it —practicing happiness! — is an entirely different matter. It's the difference between dreaming and reality. Remember that the pursuit of happiness, in the Declaration, is not a quest or a pastime, but "an unalienable right." Everyone has the right to actually be happy, not just try to be happy. To use a metaphor: You don't just get the chance to make the baseball team, you are guaranteed a spot. That's a very different understanding.

The next part of the sentence in the Declaration of Independence states "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men." What does it mean to say, as you have written, that "the Declaration makes that obtaining and practicing of happiness a matter of government and public policy, not one of individual leisure or pleasure"?

I think it means, at least in part, that the happiness of which the Declaration speaks is not simple, light and momentary pleasure à la some hedonic understandings of happiness ("do what feels right"; "if it makes you happy…"). In the Declaration, "the pursuit of happiness" is listed with the other "unalienable rights" of "life" and "liberty." Those are qualities of existence, states of being. You are either alive or dead, free or enslaved.

Governments have something to say about those states by how they govern their citizens. If happiness is akin to life and liberty —as the Declaration and the original meaning of "the pursuit of happiness" say — then we are not dealing with momentary pleasurable sensations ("I'm happy the sun came out this afternoon") but with deep and extended qualities of life (the happiness one feels to be cancer free, for instance).

According to the Declaration, the extended quality of happiness — what we might call the good or flourishing life — is or should be a primary concern of government. That means it isn't just about my happiness, especially idiosyncratically defined, but about all citizens' happiness.

If the founders' understanding of the "pursuit of happiness" does, indeed, have "profound public policy ramifications, and thus real connections to social justice," what are some specific examples of actions the government does or should take to secure that right today?

If we operate with a thick definition of happiness, then we have to think beyond simplistic understandings of happiness — as important as those are — and think about the good life more broadly. It may be that the American Dream, if that is parsed as lots of money and the like, isn't a sufficient definition of the good life or true happiness. It may, in fact, be detrimental.

Empirical research in happiness has shown that more money does not, in fact, make a significant difference in someone's happiness. The ultra-rich are not any happier than the average middle-class person (and sometimes to the contrary). So, moving beyond just the hedonic aspects of happiness, researchers have demonstrated the importance of positive emotions, positive individual traits (e.g., virtues), and positive institutions.

Governments could (and should, according to the Declaration) enable such things. To lift up just two examples that I think a lot about myself, the government needs to take action to guarantee all citizens' health and safety. A thick definition of happiness certainly includes many things — and sick people can in fact be very happy, can live flourishing lives — but positive institutions that keep us healthy and safe are, to my mind, specific and concrete ways the government can help a country's "gross national happiness" index (the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan actually measures its country's GNH!).

Food, medicine, safe living conditions — those are a few important building blocks of a happy life that governments can address.

Your book focuses on what the Bible teaches us about the pursuit of happiness, and you also note the current role of positive psychology as our society's primary arena for asking what "happiness" means. What is the most important lesson we can learn from both of those sources to help us understand and pursue happiness now?

Just this — that both the Bible and positive psychology give us a very thick understanding of the word "happiness." It is not about breakfast being yummy. It is about human flourishing, the good life, the obtaining and experiencing of all that can be glossed with the word "happiness," but only carefully and usually with a few sentences of explanation required to flesh it all out.

A thick understanding of "happiness" means that we have to think beyond only pleasurable sensations or think about redefining "happiness" altogether if "pleasure" is the only thing it means. If that's the only thing "happiness" means anymore, then we have a case of "word pollution" and we need to reclaim or redefine the word or perhaps use a different one altogether, at least for a while.

Redefining simplistic, thin definitions of "happiness" means that we come to terms that the happy life does not mean a life devoid of real problems and real pain. Those, too, are part of life and can even contribute to human growth and flourishing, which means they can and must be incorporated into a thick notion of happiness. As one positive psychologist has said: The only people who don't feel normal negative feelings are the pathologically psychotic, and the dead. Or, according to the biblical book of Psalms, the only people who live lives of constant comfort and pleasure are the wicked!

So, positive psychology speaks of post-traumatic growth — a kind of growth only experienced (and only able to be experienced) after grief. Or, to think about the New Testament, when Christians call the day Jesus was crucified "Good Friday," they certainly do not mean by that that it was a fun-filled day.

Instead, that is a very thick use of the word "good" and that is the kind of thick use that we must have when we speak of "happiness" — one that can encompass sorrow; that includes social concerns like food, health, and safety; and that is about experiencing the good, flourishing life, not just hoping for it.

(Update) Does the political climate in the United States impact the need for a “thick” understanding of the pursuit of happiness?

Now, in 2016, I'm even more struck by the need for the government to help people attain — pursue and actually reach — key elements of human flourishing: food, safety, medicine and the like.

Politically, of course, people will differ on these matters, but it strikes me that we have had vicious political debates over things that are, at root, profoundly connected to these elements of happiness and who will gain access to them. Take, for example, the debate over universal healthcare. Or debates over gun violence. Or immigration.  

People who are for stricter immigration laws may be concerned about their own safety, but if happiness is a universal right (as the Declaration of Independence states) then we should also think about the safety of refugees who would be turned away at our borders. In this regard, the biblical story of Ruth the Moabitess is rather remarkable. Had she been turned away at the border, then Israel would have never had its greatest king, David, since he was her great grandson.  

Or one might like to stockpile weapons in order to feel safe, but one must also ask about the proliferation of gun culture and if that is truly a safer way of life. Statistics from other modern industrialized countries suggest it is not, or at least not the only way to think about this problem.

So, in the end, I wonder if the thickness of the best definition of happiness means we must think about the happiness of others, not just our own happiness.

That would have certainly resonated with the early founders who were concerned not simply with themselves but with all who would come after them in the United States, and it is unquestionably true for the Bible where, among many examples, one might cite Jesus' instruction to his disciples: "No one has greater love than to give up one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13, Common English Bible).