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.}

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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.
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Comments

  1. I had never heard the story about “public” being taken out. This is really interesting.

    Happiness that will shape the world around us is a very worthy goal.
    Tracie recently posted…Breakfast Is Code For DessertMy Profile

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

  2. I had no idea about this, and I love to dig into history! It really does put a different spin on what the founding fathers intended, eh? And in light of current politics, well, just very interesting.
    Melisa@Home on Deranged recently posted…Let’s Be Lovely and blog hopMy Profile

    • 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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!
    Brava!
    Nancy recently posted…The Cuban SandwichMy Profile

  5. This is fascinating. I do feel that our generation was shaped to perceive ourselves and our personal happiness as a “top priority value”. It’s interesting to read the post and think about the shift in our perception of the word and how we got to where we are. I’d love to read more (from you) about this!
    Katia recently posted…Are Kids TV Shows Designed to Drain Our Last Remaining Shreds of SanityMy Profile

  6. I could not love this post more. Fascinating.

  7. I had no idea. Sharing this around so I can sort of seem like a smarty pants even if it’s secondhand smarts. Haha.
    Liz recently posted…Zoe vs. This Blog: A BlogiversaryMy Profile

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