The Pursuit of Happiness

I came across an article this morning about Brazil looking to amend its constitution by guaranteeing the citizen's right to "happiness".

This got me thinking: as the global revolution is taking place, do we Americans even understand what it's all about? Do we understand what's taking place all over the world? Do we get what these people are actually fighting for?

"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."

Every American should certainly know this, the second sentence of our Declaration of Independence. The rest of world certainly knows it.

And we should all generally know what it means to have rights to "Life" and "Liberty".

What has me thinking today is this portion about "the pursuit of Happiness". What exactly is the "Happiness" our founding fathers were referring to? It must be pretty important, ranking up there with both "Life" and "Liberty", right? Understanding this right, guaranteed in our Declaration of Independence, might be the key to understanding the global revolution.

Having spent some time studying philosophy, I can tell you that the often overlooked capitalization of the words "Rights", "Life", "Liberty" and "Happiness" in the Declaration of Independence is actually quite important when trying to understand the meaning. You see, when a seemingly arbitrary, normally non-capitalized word is capitalized in a certain context, it signifies that the word is being used as a proper noun, just like a person's name. It has a very defined, exact meaning that is not to be confused with the mundane, dictionary definition of the word. That, in itself, gives us a clue as to what the phrase actually means - the "pursuit of Happiness" spoken of here is the pursuit of a very specific, singular thing, and not the general "happiness" that most of us would ordinarily think.

So, if that's the case, the definition of "Happiness", with a capital "H", must be identified somewhere. The question is "where?".

John Locke, a 17th Century philosopher, had basically outlined the structure of the government which the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution established 100 years or so later. His philosophies can be easily recognized throughout both of these founding documents, and Thomas Jefferson himself stated that he considered Locke as one of the "three greatest men to have ever lived". It's generally accepted that the origin of the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence is Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government, Chapter 2 where he states (in section 6):

"The state of nature has a law...which obliges every one...that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions..."

In this statement, however, Locke never mentioned "Happiness". He spoke of life, liberty, health and possessions. Many historians and scholars would have it that, Thomas Jefferson, in a stroke of genius, just decided to reword what Locke had written as he authored the Declaration; that the word "Happiness" is symbolic, and that he actually meant "possessions". The use of "Happiness" as a proper noun, however, tells us this must be wrong.

Looking to Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Chapter 21, there is extensive discussion of "happiness", including the clear definition it would need to be used as a proper noun. In section 42, Locke states:

"Happiness and misery are the names of two extremes, the utmost bounds whereof we know not... But of some degrees of both we have very lively impressions; made by several instances of delight and joy on the one side, and torment and sorrow on the other..."

So Locke defined "Happiness", as one "extreme" of which we can only experience in various degrees through impressions of "delight and joy", and contrasts it to "misery" with its impressions of "torment and sorrow". Further, in section 36 of this work, Locke states:

"For, as much as whilst we are under any uneasiness, we cannot apprehend ourselves happy...pain and uneasiness being, by every one, concluded and felt to be inconsistent with happiness...that which of course determines the choice of our will to the next action will always be- the removing of pain, as long as we have any left, as the first and necessary step towards happiness."

Then in section 61:

"But as soon as any new uneasiness comes in, this happiness is disturbed, and we are set afresh on work in the pursuit of happiness."

Clearly, that exact phrase, "pursuit of happiness", is defined here as the act of removing "pain" and "uneasiness" which are contrary and therefore hinder the experience of "happiness", and this is what our Declaration of Independence states is an unalienable Right.

There is no mention of property or "possessions" here, only a very clear definition of "Happiness" being a spectrum of experience we perceive through impressions of "delight and joy", and of its pursuit being the removal of the hindrances to those perceptions.

And this is what the whole damned world is fighting for!

Right now, Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemenis, Jordanians, Algerians and Syrians are all standing up and throwing off the shackles of their repressive regimes. Even in Saudi Arabia, people are taking to the streets in protest of what they feel as a "pain" or "uneasiness". Many are pointing the finger and saying it's about food and health and property, but it's not.

It's about their right to "the pursuit of Happiness", that very same right we Americans declared was given to every man, woman and child by their Creator!

Even in Brazil, a reform in the way the government thinks and operates is underway, and they are looking to add "happiness" to their list of guaranteed rights!

The whole world is actively seeking the American Dream, and the key to the Dream is that one tiny portion of the Declaration of Independence..."the pursuit of Happiness".

The question is, then, when will Americans stand up and fight for their own right to pursue it?


  1. Why is the word "Rights" capitalized?

  2. In response to Alex: "...when a seemingly arbitrary, normally non-capitalized word is capitalized in a certain context, it signifies that the word is being used as a proper noun, just like a person's name. It has a very defined, exact meaning that is not to be confused with the mundane, dictionary definition of the word..."

    Because many others have worked through the definition of what a "Right" is in this context, I wont go into it, but do check here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rights, here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_and_legal_rights#Natural_rights_theories and here http://www.tenthamendmentcenter.com/2010/02/25/what-is-a-right/ for some info if you're interested

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