The Pursuit of Happiness

The Pursuit of Happiness

DoD photo by Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Gary Ward via archive.defense.gov, public domain  

DoD photo by Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Gary Ward via archive.defense.gov, public domain  

Corey Uhden, Politics Contributor

“You should talk to strangers at a bar,” a friend once advised. I responded,  “I don’t want to.” I could not understand why she was frustrated by that answer until I unwittingly took her advice a few months later. There I was sitting at a local pub when a middle-aged man, a stranger, sat down beside me and started cracking some offensive jokes. I told him to stop and that began a bit of a conversation on politics and culture that ended with this nugget of wisdom: “in all of my travels, I have found that all Americans want exactly the same thing - their families to be healthy and happy.” I thought nothing of it until I wrote my July 18 column, “For Love of Country.” I repeated his message, almost without thinking, and connected it to my case for preserving freedom:

As conservatives, our highest ideal is to preserve the privileges of freedom and extend it to all those that have yet to realize the opportunities it affords. Freedom is the lifeblood of the republic. It grants us the power to pursue happiness, whether we seek to attain it through accumulating material wealth and/or raising a healthy family. 

When Thomas Jefferson sat down to write the Declaration of Independence 241 years ago, he expressly included “the pursuit of happiness” as an inalienable right of “all men.” To believe in the human condition is to believe in happiness as our highest personal obligation. 

For the religious, Psalms 37:4 is often cited as the moral foundation for happiness - “take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Jefferson’s contemporary, President George Washington, expressly made “the pursuit of Happiness” the justification for the society and government he helped establish. In his often-lauded Farewell Address, Washington wrote, “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” He concluded, “in vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness.”

In an increasingly secular society, is the pursuit of personal happiness such a justifiable cause as a focus of government and politics? Could the founders have been merely expressing a personal belief or does such an expressly worded declaration sanctify the most optimistic of conservative ideals - equal opportunity for all to pursue their dreams? That is an important principle, after all, a call to resist the siren's’ song of guaranteeing equal outcomes in favor of empowering individuals and promoting earned success. Indeed, the right to pursue happiness does not grant the right to expect it, and the right to pursue success entails the right to fail. These are conservative principles - moral principles - and are tested constantly. 

One could pursue personal happiness by traveling the world, volunteering for charity, marrying someone they love and possibly raising a family, and/or practicing the teachings of their faith. Above all, that relegates the pursuit of limiting government to a means, rather than an ends, and this is where “happiness” becomes political. All politics views facilitating human happiness as the ultimate ends. Conservatives highlight the pursuit of prosperity as the best path to happiness while many liberals and libertarians view social issues through the lens of maximum personal freedom in search of pleasure. However, conservatives tend to believe the government must enforce a moral order to prevent liberty from becoming “a curse,” as my fellow Politics Contributor Josh Lewis described it. Many liberals, on the other hand, believe that capitalist self-interest deprives many of a dignified life and so it is to be restrained. All of it is meant to facilitate more happiness, although it could be the case today that partisan politics has encouraged politicians to pursue policies that facilitate happiness for their side, and not their opponents. That would be a shame. 

No slave has ever been happy. No oppressed people have been a happy people. Ignorance is not bliss, and no one who has ever lived has ever been happy if they were not safe and healthy. These facts have invigorated the politics of our country since its inception. To rewrite the Constitution today, one could swap “form a more perfect union” in the preamble with “make America a happier place for all” to the same effect. But perhaps nothing better captures America’s devotion to the pursuit of happiness than our history as a nation of immigrants. 

As I researched the demographics of a congressional district in southern California, for some reason, I thought watching the local high school’s lip dub video filmed earlier this year would tell me everything I needed to know. Sure enough, it was there from the first frame - this is a diverse school. As the camera panned around at all the smiling faces, groups started appearing carrying flags from Mexico and the Philippines in a celebration of heritage amidst this joyous occasion. It must have been hard work putting it all together but it was clear these students were happy to do it. This was their pursuit of happiness. I figured it must have made so many parents proud. This is what makes all the years of hard work and long hours worth it. It is true; every parent wants the same thing - for their children to be happy. 

But the diversity on display speaks to something more profound, for here were the descendants of migrants finding happiness in an American experience all their own. This is why their ancestors came here. Aside from slaves that were brought to the Americas against their will or born into that horrid institution, every family has the same story. At some point, someone in our family decided to abandon their homeland and search for a happier life in America. It is the story of the American Dream that has so long inspired and strengthened our country. Sometimes it takes years and sometimes generations, but making people happy is America’s purpose and that is what our politics should be about. 

You can follow the author on Twitter @CACoreyU 

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