The Pursuit of Public Happiness

Pursuit of Happiness

This week we {in the United States} celebrate the 4th of July, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But did you know that this famous phrase by Thomas Jefferson originally read “life, liberty, and the pursuit of public happiness”?

When editor Benjamin Franklin read that version, according to Professor Michael Hartoonian, former President of the National Council for the Social Studies, his reaction was something to the effect of, “Everyone knows the only kind of happiness is public happiness!” So they went with the more succinct “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Only to have many Americans, many generations later, think that the happiness enshrined in this document is primarily about our pursuit of private happiness.

In a June 2013 issue of TIME magazine, Jon Meacham addressed this very topic. He wrote that, for Jefferson, “happiness was not about yellow smiley faces, self-esteem, or even feelings.” It was instead about “virtue, good conduct, and generous citizenship.” Professor Hartoonian describes the Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness as “a concept that [embodies] the notion of joy and the action of service.”

The “pursuit of happiness” envisioned by our Founding Fathers is much bigger than our individual well-being. It is only when we enrich the common good that we can also enjoy private happiness.

American history is about finding this balance between the personal pursuit of prosperity, and the enhancement of our common wealth. Meacham reminds us Jefferson envisioned a happiness that would “shape not only our internal worlds, but the world around us.”

On this 4th of July, let us remember our important role as citizens, and cultivate and celebrate the pursuit of public happiness

Our neighbor’s happiness is our happiness.

Our Common Well-Being

“Everything is connected to everything else. Our safety and well-being cannot be individual matters…. Taking care of other people’s safety is taking care of our own safety. To take care of their well-being is to take care of our own well-being.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, Your True Home

Pursuit of Happiness

{Original image credit: Colors of Freedom, John (Puzzler4879), via Flickr. Modified with permission.}

Sarah Rudell Beach
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Sarah Rudell Beach

Sarah is a writer, teacher, and mother. At Left Brain Buddha, she writes about her journey to live and parent mindfully, joyfully, and thought-fully in her left-brain analytical life. When not working, she enjoys dancing, reading, and hanging out with her little Buddhas.
Sarah Rudell Beach
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    • Sarah says

      I know, it’s not a commonly told story. I first heard it from my professor {mentioned in the post} in grad school!

    • Sarah says

      Melissa ~ yes it is fascinating to think that ‘happiness’ had a meaning in the 18th century that our founding fathers would not have anticipated…. Have a “happy” 4th!

  1. says

    I didn’t know that “public” was taken out of the phrase. It’s so interesting how “happiness” is so subjective, too. It is a great reminder to put the common good back into the equation. On this holiday, I thank you for the reminder that we are all connected.

  2. says

    Sarah, great post! I am in a semi-constant state of dis-belief at what many mainstream Americans believe the founding principles of our country are, and whenever I see a thoughtful and intelligent observation like yours I want to jump up and down and clap!
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