What is meant by the Pursuit of Happiness?

What did the Founding Fathers mean to convey in the Declaration of Independence by spotlighting the Pursuit of Happiness as an inalienable right together with life and liberty?

persuit of happiness state role
The pursuit of happiness is a right, and the state should have no role in how we strive for it.

By José Azel | Apparently, we are a very unhappy world. According to the data offered by Yuval Noah Harari in his provocative new book “Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow,” more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists, and criminals combined. In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 120,000 were killed by war, 500,000 by crime, and 800,000 committed suicide.

It is not as if we are terribly deprived and hungry. Today, for the first time in history, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little. In 2014, more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition. In 2010, whereas famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million, obesity killed 3 million.

Interestingly, in developed countries such as Switzerland, or France, with higher prosperity, comfort, and security, about 25 persons per 100,000 commit suicide. In developing countries, suffering from poverty and instability, the suicide rate is about one person per 100,000. It appears that the timeless advice is true: money cannot make us happy.

So, what about the pursuit of happiness? A novel approach to our collective unhappiness comes from the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan. In the 1970s, the Fourth Dragon King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, made an extraordinary statement for a head of state: “We do not believe in Gross National Product. Gross National Happiness is more important.” Bhutan then pioneered the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) which was enacted in the Kingdom’s 2008 Constitution.

In contrast with Gross National Product (GDP) which measures economic output, the Gross National Happiness index purports to also measure net environmental impacts, the spiritual and cultural growth of citizens, mental and physical health, and the strength of the corporate and political systems of the nation. GNH emphasizes collective happiness and harmony with nature as the goal of governance, which philosophically fits nicely with Bhutan’s Buddhist culture and identity.

Of course, any measure of GNH is intricate, complex, and rife with estimates and subjectivity. But how exactly does one measure the spiritual and cultural growth of individuals?

What makes one person happy may be totally indifferent to another. National happiness is difficult to measure. I do give Bhutan credit for trying; the country has developed a sophisticated index of nine domains that contribute to happiness: Psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity, and living standards.

My problem with Bhutan’s approach is that the goal is not just to measure happiness, but to integrate the GNH philosophy into public policy, requiring government intervention.

Supporters of the GNH index argue that GDP is an obsolete economic metric and that governments must replace it with GNH. Thus, making national happiness the responsibility of the government; this is antithetical to freedom. And yet, consider the absurdity of Nicolas Maduro creating in Venezuela a Ministry of Happiness. Which brings me to my opening question: What did the United States Founding Fathers mean by the pursuit of happiness?

The Declaration is explicitly clear that government should guarantee the right to the pursuit of happiness, not the right to happiness. In fact, as Noah Harari notes in his book, “Thomas Jefferson did not make the state responsible for its citizens’ happiness. Rather he sought only to limit the power of the state.” It is our right to pursue happiness our way, and the state should not get involved in our choices.

The irony is that, while the right to the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence was intended as a restraint on the power of the state, it has been perverted into the right to happiness expanding state intervention. Government managed happiness is the philosophy behind the Gross National Happiness index, so, if anything makes us unhappy, the state should do something about it. This is precisely the opposite of what Jefferson meant by the right to the pursuit of happiness.

Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Reflections on Freedom.”

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