The Pursuit of Happiness

It is well-known that Americans revere the three legal documents on which their country was founded – the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.[1] The short phrase “the pursuit of happiness,” penned by Thomas Jefferson, occurs in the first of these documents. The great emphasis that has been placed on these words by Americans over the centuries has had a profound effect on the way their society has developed.

The consideration of this phrase in isolation from its historical context is another example of the misleading tendency to consider books or documents separately from the historical context in which they were written. Those who read or heard this phrase in the late 1700s, when it was first written and read or heard, would have understood that it did not mean, imply, justify, or encourage the narrow and selfish pursuit of one’s personal goals, aims, pleasures, satisfactions, and happiness – as many of its readers do today – to the exclusion of everything else. They understood that individuals have duties and responsibilities to others – to their parents and children, their relatives, friends, employers, and employees, those with whom they do business, and the other members of the society in which they live – that are just as important as any individual’s “pursuit of [one’s own] happiness.” This is the societal background against which, and the context in which, the phrase ought to be considered and understood, and not, as is so often done today, as an abstract goal or ideal of human endeavour.

Another important difference is that people lived back then in a world that was more physically demanding, challenging, difficult, and uncertain than today’s world of manufactured, packaged, automated, and more assured ease and plenty. Thus, in the past, happiness, along with its dimmer shadow, pleasure, was often a long-term goal whose attainment was not always assured. The idea of instant gratification would not have made any sense to people living at the time, since it wasn’t possible to gratify a desire immediately, or with the ease with which it is possible to do so today. Water had to be drawn from a well or stream before it could be drunk, most foods had to be prepared and cooked before they could be eaten – and in many cases grown and harvested, young people had to wait until marriage before they were able to have sex, and many things had to be built, sewn, or crafted by their users before they could be used or enjoyed. The seasons usually dictated the things they could eat and when they could eat them. In their world, there was frequently a long gap between the conception of a wish or desire and its fulfillment, and many were the occasions when they were not able to fulfill their wishes or desires, whether due to the constraints of Nature, society, or other circumstances.

It has been observed that a desire that is too easily satisfied provides less satisfaction and pleasure than a desire that is satisfied only with difficulty and effort. The gold medal that is won only after many years of arduous training and competition is more prized than when the same medal is given to one’s heirs. A thing that has to be earned by one’s labour is usually more cherished and valued than when the same thing is obtained without any effort on the part of the recipient. But since others have written about these matters, I shall not repeat their observations. Instead, I wish to consider the marriage of this seemingly innocuous or noble phrase – “the pursuit of happiness” – with the strong emphasis on individuality and individual rights that exists in the United States and in other societies where the inhabitants have been influenced by Americans’ goals, ideals, and models of behaviour.

It is hard for most people living in today’s hyper-individualistic societies to understand how unnatural the ideas of individuality and individual rights would have sounded to our ancestors. That an individual, whether male or female, should be free to do as one wishes, regardless of the wishes and expectations of others, such as one’s parents or the elders of the village or place in which one lived, is a truly radical idea that would have been rejected forthright by our ancestors as a highly unnatural idea that would have upset and destabilized the family order, traditions, and society in which they lived, the preservation of which were vital for their survival. When existence was more precarious than it is now, such a model of human comportment simply could not be allowed. It was only with increasing material prosperity and security that the individual behaviour and way of thinking that characterize many modern societies were able gradually to develop and flourish.

But, as happens with many human ideals, the selfishly sinister Siamese twins of individualism and the pursuit of happiness, or pleasure, as it is often interpreted today, have been taken to a harmful extreme that its originators would never have approved of. We are encouraged to think much of ourselves and relatively little or not at all of others, with the result that many people view others simply as a means by which they can satisfy their frequently selfish desires, as is exemplified in the matter of sex. This very narrow conception of human relations has been encouraged by those economists who declare that monetary or economic exchange is the best, most desirable, or the only possible kind of human relationship.

Americans and others who read the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” today completely fail to understand the social and moral context in which it was written and originally understood. As a result, they assume that it justifies them in doing only whatever is necessary to make themselves happy, without giving the slightest consideration to the welfare and well-being of others, because it is assumed that that is their – meaning other people’s – problem or concern. In many ways, this attitude has led to a tyranny of the individual over society, along with a tyranny of individual goods or wealth over the common good.

The meaning of these four words has been greatly distorted by being separated from the historical context in which they were originally written and understood. Ripped out of their historical context, these four words have done a great deal of mischief by making people believe they are a justification, or even a sanctification, for doing whatever makes them happy, since happiness is obviously the highest goal in life, regardless of the harm they may do to others by their selfish and thoughtless actions. For, sooner or later, one individual’s pursuit of one’s particular idea of happiness will bother, impinge on, or injure another person or other people, or prevent them from pursuing their idea of happiness. And in such a conflict, what often results is a hierarchy of happinesses, where the happiness of certain individuals is more highly valued than, and given priority over, the happiness or well-being of others. There are many societies where it is considered perfectly normal and desirable that some fortunate individuals who have everything they could possibly want or need nevertheless should have their every desire and whim satisfied before others who have not the means to keep body and soul together. Hence, the narrow pursuit of happiness, along with the prevalence of individualism, has greatly increased inequality in all places where these two practices have become established.

The fact that we can only experience directly our own pains and pleasures has led many people to discount, belittle, or ignore the pains and pleasures of others, whether these others are human beings or other living creatures. In particular, this widespread tendency is illustrated by children. As children grow older, they come to realize that other people’s concerns, pains, and pleasures also matter, but except in the case of those persons whom they care about, most people stop short of attributing equal importance to them as they do to their own, since they do not directly experience other people’s pains and pleasures in the immediate, sensorial way that they do their own. The truly wise or enlightened person recognizes that other people’s and other organisms’ pains and pleasures matter and are just as important as one’s own, and to place one’s own before those of others at all times is selfish and wrong. However, this is not to say that one should place others’ pains and pleasures above or before one’s own, as Jesus and other self-abnegating individuals have done and encouraged others to do. One’s own concerns, pains, and pleasures certainly do matter, but they should not matter to the exclusion of those of others.

Finding the balance between these two concerns – concern for oneself and concern for others – has been the question that has bedevilled all the many thinkers and philosophers of society. It is also a constant concern for most of us, as we try to balance our own concerns, pains, and pleasures with those of the people we know, interact with, and care about, whether at work, at home, with friends, or the many other people we encounter more or less regularly in our lives. When we are not able to balance these concerns, or we are not aware of other people’s concerns, then they lead to disputes, arguments, misunderstandings, resentments, lawsuits, and, on occasion, violence, injury, and death.

If human beings were able to feel the pains and pleasures of other human creatures, as well as those of other living organisms, then the world, both human and non-human, would be a much better place than it is presently. But this physical limitation has resulted in a great deal of harm that humans have done to other members of their own species, as well as to the members of other species. The concern that most mothers feel for their children illustrates, in many ways, what I am talking about. For although the mother does not actually experience her child’s pains and pleasures, these matter to her just as much as, and in some cases even more than, her own pains and pleasures. Jesus’s conception of love is exemplified by most mothers’ love for their children.[2]

But clearly most people are not capable of loving all people in the way that a mother loves her children, which explains why Jesus’s teachings have failed to bring about the salutary global changes that he envisioned. However, it is possible to become more aware of other people’s concerns, pains, and pleasures through a variety of methods, the simplest of which is asking and listening to them.[3] Reading books, such as oral histories, watching documentaries,[4] and observing people’s actions and reactions to things are other methods that can help one to accomplish this important aim.

It is important, however, not to make the common mistake of assuming that the other person feels the same way that one would feel if one were in that person’s position. Sometimes this projection leads to a correct assessment of the other person’s emotional state, but there are many situations, especially when the other person has grown up in a different culture with different traditions, where this projection leads to misunderstandings. A common example is food. Things that one person finds delicious or appetizing may revolt or disgust another person who has grown up eating different kinds of foods. This common but frequently erroneous belief is based on the assumption that other people are like oneself in all aspects, which is merely another example of many people’s failure to understand other people’s concerns and emotions, and how they differ from their own.

The key to this enigma is the appealing but treacherous notion that we can create a good life simply by striving for individual comfort and security, and that by so doing we are indirectly enriching the lives of those around us.[5]

Our individualistic heritage [in the United States] taught us that there is no such thing as the common good but only the sum of individual goods. But in our complex, interdependent world, the sum of individual goods, organized only under the tyranny of the market, often produces a common bad that eventually erodes our personal satisfactions as well.[6]

The notion of individualism and individual rights is contrary to the unifying principle of all Life on Earth, which is that all life forms depend on other forms of life, and all things are interrelated and interdependent; in other words, that things, actions, organisms, and people do not exist or occur in a physical, moral, biological, societal, or interpersonal vacuum. It is not at all surprising that the most materially destructive society which the world has ever know was based on the celebration of individual rights in one of its founding legal documents, which determined the moral tenor and future development of the country, to the detriment of the inhabitants of many other countries, as well as the many other organisms that inhabit the Earth.

[1] Although the Bill of Rights is a set of ten amendments that were made to the U.S. Constitution, and thus does not constitute a separate legal document, given the great importance that some of these amendments have been given over the years, along with the significant consequences, both good and bad, which they have produced, it can be considered as an important legal document in its own right.

[2] Not all mothers love their children in this selfless manner, since some mothers resent, dislike, or hate their children. Of course, it is also possible for a mother mistakenly to attribute or impose her particular concerns, wishes, desires, and hopes on her child, which may not be shared by the latter.

[3] However, even this straightforward method will not always yield accurate information about other people’s desires, concerns, and emotional states, since people sometimes lie or are mistaken about these things. Moreover, embarrassment can cause people to hide the truth about certain matters. In some societies, such as Japanese society, it is considered ill-mannered to declare what one wants, and so one must learn to read a person’s desires, likes, and dislikes from other, more indirect signs.

[4] Watching fictional films and television programs is not a good way to acquire this understanding because, first of all, the actors are paid to portray certain emotions in certain situations, which may be very different from the emotions which they actually feel while they are acting. Second, these kinds of movies and programs often create artificial situations and behaviours that do not always accurately portray reality. If anything, those who watch a lot of fictional movies and television programs have a poorer understanding of other people’s desires, emotions, and concerns than a person who doesn’t watch them or spends less time watching them.

[5] The Good Society by Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, p. 86. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1991.

[6] Ibid, p. 95.