Pursuit of Happiness

Posted Oct 26, 2006
Last Updated Nov 10, 2011

Casual students of American history may assume that Thomas Jefferson created the core philosophical ideas he penned in the Declaration of Independence. But Jefferson did not think his ideas were novel—and he modestly noted that authoring the most important American document was "Not to find out new principles… but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment… it was intended to be an expression of the American mind…”

Politically, the most important passage for our society stated the responsibility of a people to overthrow a government that fails its duty to protect the rights of the people. But socially, the most important passage defines the rights that a government is supposed to protect in the first place. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The simple beauty of this passage defines the very essence of our lives—we wall want to be alive, free and happy. It’s a universal set of attributes of all healthy humans since before the beginning of our species. Instincts in all mammals (human, dog, lion, etc.) push us to survive, to roam our territory and to do things that make us content.

There are some flaws in the way the sentence is constructed, though, that can confuse us. First, by giving these three concepts (Life, Liberty, pursuit of Happiness) equal ground as "Rights” we are hidden from the way these things are linked. Politically, it may be convenient to lump the three concepts together, but they do not belong together as rights.

There never has been a right to Life. But because we value it so highly (without life we lose all that there is) it seems natural for us to say that we have a right to live. But all of our history is filled with story after story of tragedy and death—from plagues and famines to war and old age. Some die at childbirth and some before that; others die as innocent children from drowning or fire. Some are killed by storms; others are killed by stumbling down stairs and others from fever. Some live to have children, some to see grand children, and others to see the world change a little more. But inevitably… all of us die. No matter how much time and effort we spend in fortifying life, it is transient and fragile and temporary.

The political concept of a Right to Life is convenient but it is a phantom. It is an entity on paper alone, and does not bear a realistic relationship with the world in which we live. But that does not mean the concept is completely meaningless, as it is rooted in a concept that is meaningful to our lives. It would have been more accurate, though less poetic, to say that we have the Right to Not Murder or the Right Not to Murder and/or that the government does not have the right to murder its people (perhaps Right to be Not Murdered). It may seem like we are saying the same thing, but there is a logical difference in having the Right to Life versus the Right to be Not Murdered because one can never be enforced but the other can.

As a matter of culture and law, this concept is certainly not new, reinforcing Jefferson’s statement that his ideas were not original. For thousands of years it has been immoral and/or illegal to murder (Thou shalt not kill). I believe that this was the intent in Jefferson’s statement that we have a Right to Life.

But Life was not the most important thing even though it was first in the list of Rights a government must protect. In fact, it was simply the most essential entity—and whether Jefferson intended it or not, he placed his three concepts in a sequential order that makes liberty and happiness more important than life itself. (This view is from the perspective that quality is of higher importance than quantity; it could be argued, however, that the prerequisites are more important than the outcome.)

Again, like with Life, there is a bit of a logical problem with saying we have a right to Liberty—but it is not quite as pronounced as it was with Life. Your definition of "Liberty” can affect whether it is real or not. If you take it in an absolute sense—that you are free to do anything—then it is obviously false. In our natural state, we are all free to walk the Earth and sing to the skies. Without chains and bars and walls, we are free to what it is in our hearts to do—or at least try to do them. No modern human can flap his arms and fly to the moon. Socially… liberty cannot be infinite because if I am free to do anything then I am free to murder you—which goes against the Right Not to be Murdered and your right to pursue happiness.

Defined socially, Liberty is the ability to act according to natural inclinations and conscious decisions within a social framework. I am free to do what I want up to the point that I encroach on your liberties and other rights.

Liberty was the only item on Jefferson’s list (as he wrote them) that could actually be defined as a Right because it is the only item of the three that government can enforce. Governments have given and taken it as they see fit. Much more often than not, liberty has always been granted to the powerful and taken from the weak. American ideals in Jefferson’s time were historically significant because the protection of Liberty (and other perceived Rights) was starting to broaden from the politically enshrined to more of the masses.

It is the inclusion of the pursuit of Happiness that is most significant as well as strange. It is significant because it is the one ideal that requires the other two to exist—but the other two can and usually do exist without Happiness; you cannot be happy if dead, and enslavement creates unhappiness in humans. But you can be alive and miserable. You can be free and miserable.

What is odd is that by stating that a government’s role is to protect the right to not be murdered and the right to be free, you are saying that you are protecting the right of people to pursue happiness—because there is very little more that the government can do to protect the ability to pursue happiness than by protecting freedom and life. In other words, Jefferson did not even need to include the Happiness clause because it was already implied. But he did keep it in explicitly.

By including the concept of Happiness in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was making it clear that the very most important thing there is for people is happiness itself—and that the people were the most important thing because governments can exist for hundreds of years regardless of the happiness of the people. There is no such thing as a happy government because a government is an entity rather than a person. A government has no feelings (though kings and emperors and courtiers do).

Obtaining Happiness

With thousands of years of religious, philosophical and political writing dealing with happiness, you might think that the average person of today is happier than the average person of the past. There is no experiment that we can run to find out past happiness; we can probably not even create an experiment to calculate average happiness in current society.

The first problem is that happiness is subjective and primal. Our instincts and biology compel us to sustain certain needs such as eating and procreating. Having a nice meal is satisfying. Pursuing a mate and starting a family is overwhelmingly important.

But one thing about humans is that we are not two-dimensional—or even three-dimensional. We have an entire barrage of functions and drives (hunger, sexuality, competitiveness, inquisitiveness, creativity, etc) that vie for our conscious attention; moreover, these various drives ebb and flow and interact largely unconsciously and change from one day to the next. Furthermore, as a culture, the way we fulfill these drives sometimes changes from one generation to the next—although the basic drives take ages to change.

The irony of our psyches is that obtaining our goals does not create permanent happiness. When we want something, we put all our efforts into getting it; as soon as we have it, we suddenly lose our obsessive interest in it. The satisfaction is short-lived, and soon we are looking for the next goal or satisfaction.

Because of this fact of our being, most people cannot really be happy. It’s not that we are unable to be happy, but most of us are unable to understand our own psychology enough to see that obtaining a goal is not what makes us happy. Reacting to impulses alone satisfies those impulses momentarily, but it is only an automated process that does not inevitably make us steadily happy; evolution has no real need to develop a happiness function in us—only a desire to become happy—that compels us to act (in ways that help us survive and produce more offspring).

The concept of achieving happiness turns more and more to a philosophical concept. Most people seem to expect happiness to come to them by fulfilling a desire or set of desires; most people seem to be more frustrated than happy. People tend to hope for things to make them happy or expect some change to make them happy; they have a hard time learning that nothing makes us happy.

But if you look at people participating in their daily lives, you will soon realize the keys to happiness. While it is a fallacy to expect happiness to happen to us, it is within our means to be happy.

Happiness is acquired through the act of pursuing goals (of interest or meaning) that usually extend beyond the moment. In other words, it is the act of pursuing a goal that makes us happy—because we are working towards something, going somewhere. That is why so many people suddenly feel a sense of loss or disappointment after attaining a goal—because they did not realize that the part of something most conducive of happiness is the challenge of pursuing a goal. Once you have it, the drives in you that make you want it no longer have to push you and no longer feed you with anticipation and want.

Reaching a goal is certainly not a bad thing. But expecting happiness to come from it is not wise because human minds are not wired that way. Such misaligned expectations produce disillusionment and frustration.

Becoming happy is a process of changing our perspective on life such that our actions, pursuits, desires and goals are set up so that every day presents a tiered set of challenges that help us reach short, long, and epic goals. We must be realistic about who we are (as a species and as individuals) to set the right set of goals that align with our path to happiness.

Setting goals is essential as it gives you something to expect and anticipate. Keeping happiness is acquired through the method of always having something you are working to achieve—and when you accomplish your goal, willingly accepting the next challenge and goal. One of the most ingenious tactics is to create "epic goals” that are completely unrealistic—ones that you can never accomplish alone or in your lifetime. It may seem like a waste, but it is an important strategy for individual happiness and cultural progress.

In modern business jargon, setting an epic goal is equivalent to creating a "Mission Statement”. Mission statements are lofty goals that create principles that guide all other actions and lesser goals.

As a parent, you may choose to send your descendents on a loving and adventurous path. Certainly, you won’t live forever to see your efforts finished… but it is a goal that can guide the rest of your life and give you great and enduring happiness as you see the seeds you have planted and cultivated grow in the direction you dream about. The same principle applies to business, politics and other areas of life.

By creating ultimate goals, the meaning behind your lesser goals become deeper; fulfilling each shorter goal does not bring disappointment—as you always see shorter goals as steps to your ultimate goals. In the example above, your ultimate goal to guide your descendants may cultivate goals in your life such as learning to be an effective teacher, a more understanding parent, a stronger citizen, etc. Missions and purpose tie together your life, making all the seemingly disjointed roles you play suddenly seem meaningfully intertwined as you see how successes in one area can spill over as successes in other areas—a successful parent can take his knowledge and experience into being a successful manager, teacher, role model, etc.

The Human Barrier

Humans are not always logical creatures—despite the global movement for higher technologies, humans themselves have not changed much in thousands of years. The writings of our ancestors shows that they had the same wants, desires and fears that we have today.

A tool that helps humanity develop new innovations as a culture is also a tool that stops humans from being happy individually. That tool is envy.

Envy leads us to want things we do not have—especially things that others have.

Coupled with competitiveness, envy leads you to work harder to get the things you want. If I have a nice car, you need to work hard to get a nice car. Even better, competitiveness can lead you to get a nicer car. Applied in the business world, this is a function that creates great success as businesses and industries compete to make things better. Thus innovations ensue.

Unfortunately, that same tool can destroy an individual’s ability to be happy if the individual is not competitive. An uncompetitive person will see that his neighbor has a better house and simply feel depressed that his neighbor has something better than him—all the while failing to see that he can be happy by working towards a goal to have a nice house!

Realizing your natural tendency for jealousy is important to understanding things that lead you to be unhappy with what you have. Realizing that you have an envy that works unconsciously is helpful to put your life in perspective. In America today, a low-income family is richer and more powerful than a king of four-thousand years ago! Heated homes, electric-powered lights, television, internet, telecommunications, cars, air-conditioning, toothpaste, grocery stores, stereo systems, books and free libraries, roads, penicillin, aspirin … the list can go on nearly forever. These are all things ancient Pharaohs had none of; emperors of the past did not have half the resources and luxuries of a modern (low-income) American.

In fact, a modern American has more convenience, more luxury, more power, than almost every single human being who ever has lived on this planet—and even with all that, people are unhappy in America. We live longer, healthier lives than most others… and still we seem to lack overall happiness.

This should be a high indicator of the fact that happiness does not and cannot come from external things. Happiness does and only can come from the inside. A person has to choose to be happy and live his life happily to be happy. Happiness does not happen to us.

We will always have our instincts that lead to envy. It is up to us as individuals to reign in those instincts and stop them from controlling our lives. Happiness is not measured in units of things you do not have. Individuals can be happy if they avoid becoming automatons to their instincts and instead use their instincts to help drive them to accomplish self-set goals that make life meaningful.


  • Documents of American History
  • Thomas Jefferson by R. B. Bernstein
  • The Life and Selected Writings by Thomas Jefferson edited by Koch and Peden
  • Declaration of Independence

Interesting Reading

Pursuing Happiness

Essays relating to the topic of happiness.

  1. Pursuit of Happiness
  2. Ambitions and Weekends


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Eric Olson

Apr 6, 2007

Just thought I would say that I agree with most of that. In personal experience my happiness is just because I decided I never want to be depressed. Though there are always down moments most of my life I have been happy. Probably 90% of it.

Charli Hall

Nov 2, 2006

Thank you for your informative writings on various subjects. As an older student returning to college I keep seeing your site pop up on searches. Keep up the good work. Again thank you for helping me maintain A's.
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