“…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We all recognize the memorable phrase enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, right? Yes, we were declaring our independence from the British, and yes, we were laying out the foundation for a whole new nation, and yes, we were fundamentally changing the rules of the global expansion game, and yet the founding fathers managed to find the time to insist we protect our pursuit of happiness as well.
Little words, lots of big questions. First of all, why pursuit? Notice they didn’t insist we be happy. They said we have the right to pursue happiness. Whether we attain it or not is up to us. Unlike the other inalienable rights to life and liberty, which are unconditional, happiness requires action and work on our part – the pursuit.
And what about that word happiness? Is it possible to define what happiness means? Certainly there seems to be a worldwide resurgence of interest in the topic. Experts range from the King of Bhutan, who measures the success of his kingdom not by GDP but by GNH (Gross National Happiness), to the United Nations, with their right to human happiness campaign launched at the Rio+20 Summit held in Brazil this summer, to the University of Rotterdam, which maintains the World Database of Happiness. Happiness is clearly once again a worthy goal worldwide.
Our definition comes from sociologist Charles Murray’s book “In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government”, in which he defines happiness as “lasting and justified satisfaction with one’s life as a whole” and concludes that “It is essential to the pursuit of happiness that one earn one’s life. The threshold condition of self-respect is that one feel, not in one’s public protestations but in one’s heart, that he is a net contributor to the world.”.
Murray lays out a compelling defense of the pursuit of happiness against an array of challenges posed by economic dependence on the state. He convincingly concludes that human beings, when left to their own devices, will succeed in their pursuit of happiness, but when shackled by economic dependence on the state are condemned to a life devoid of the possibility.
Our new project seeks to add a human dimension to this intellectual exercise through interviews with Americans who depend on these programs, Americans who provide them, and Americans who have managed to avoid them.
We are crisscrossing the nation from Seattle to New Orleans, Harlem to Pine Ridge Reservation, Flagstaff to Washington, D.C., and many places in between, in search of Americans with stories to tell about that most American of pastimes, the pursuit of happiness.