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“Life, liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”

The meaning of the term “Pursuit of Happiness.” In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson announced that every human being has “certain unalienable rights,” among which are those to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What did he mean by “the pursuit of happiness”?


To answer this, we should bear in mind that in writing the Declaration, Jefferson said he was not attempting to put forth an original philosophy of his own. Rather, it “was intended to be an expression of the American mind,” that is, the opinions held by most if not all Americans of his time. If is difficult, however, to say with precision what most Americans in 1776 thought “the pursuit of happiness” meant.


The history of the term “Pursuit of happiness.” Since Jefferson did not invent the phrase, the best we can do is discover its source and determine what it meant to its originator. Almost surely, Jefferson read about the “pursuit of happiness” in John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), in which he discusses how the human mind operates:


As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness, so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger [the] ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general…the more are we free from [obedience to an immediate impulse for some pleasure].


What the “pursuit of happiness” is. Every day we make numerous choices in deciding what course of action will add to our well-being—what will make us happy. Making these choices is the pursuit of happiness. The results of our choices are not all equal: we soon discover that choosing some pleasures, especially following momentary impulses, leads not to happiness but to pain. But if we use our faculty of foresight, recalling past experience, we learn to postpone immediate gratification and see what choices are really in our interest. Thus, learning self-control based on experience is essential to happiness.


Pursuing happiness as an inalienable right. According to Locke, this continuous process of choosing is part of human beings’ unchangeable nature. Since our nature compels us to constantly make choices about what we believe gives us well-being, such choosing is inherent in our nature—in Jefferson’s terms, it is inalienable. Accordingly, our right to make these choices is inalienable, and, unless our actions attack the rights of others, it is wrong for government to interfere.


Private happiness, public happiness, and moral goodness. Locke, Jefferson, and others learned from ancient philosophers, especially Aristotle, that these choices have ethical or moral dimensions: those without moral virtue cannot be happy. Many of our choices have social consequences and therefore have a civic dimension when they enhance or subtract from “public happiness.” Thus “the pursuit of happiness” must refer both to public and to private happiness.

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1 hour ago, Hawkeye57 said:

That is not what this picture portrays. You and Governor Murphy got it wrong lol but it is a good caption for the times!


It is French soldiers that were rescuing a starving donkey during the 1950's I think.


You are correct. To have taken this as other than a joke is silly. 

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