Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness: the past and the present

After satisfying basic needs, humans have searched for happiness and bliss. Various religion talks about happiness. Buddhism highlights nirvana (absolute happiness) as a core theme of Buddha’s teaching. For Hindus, salvation is an egoless state with limitless compassion for the rest of creation (Cardinal virtues of Hinduism include gratitude, non-violence, boundless compassion, and generosity). Confucianism emphasizes four cardinal principles (humanity, righteousness, decent behavior, and wisdom). Christianity stresses Makarios (Bliss: supreme happiness) as the ultimate end of humans, which can only come from a close relationship with God and from following Jesus’ teaching.

Most philosophers and historians agree that the concept of happiness in antiquity centered around good luck and fortune. In ancient Greece, happiness was deemed something beyond human power, controlled mainly by luck and the gods. However, great Greek philosophers started to challenge that. For Aristotle, Eudaimonia can be achieved by being fortunate and through living virtuously. In his words, “pursuit of virtue, excellence, and the best within us lead to happiness.” 

While writing the USA’s declaration of independence, Thomas Jefferson borrowed the phrase life, liberty, and the pursuit of property from English philosopher John Locke. He replaced the last word for the pursuit of property with to pursuit of happiness. Some scholars argue that Jefferson meant that happiness was about an individual’s contribution to society rather than pursuits of self-gratification. Jefferson firmly believed that personal happiness comes from being a good citizen rather than pursuing ever-evolving desires for material wealth.

The rapid industrialization and economic growth in the 1880s might have accelerated the gradual shift in the meaning of happiness from something external (e.g., luck and fortune) to something personal and attainable in the United States. Contemporary Americans view happiness as something over which they have control and something that they can actively pursue(Oishi)

Over the years, individual pursuit of happiness has been challenged by collective happiness. King of Bhutan has developed a Gross National Happiness index. It includes health, governance, ecology and sustainability, education, community vitality, etc. 

The pursuit of happiness is not a right: it is a goal and search. Maybe we can do it individually or collectively. Just do it.