We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Americans are an unhappy, unhealthy lot. From the moment we declared our independence from the domination of British rule, we have included the people’s right to pursue happiness as one of the primary privileges of our citizens and the responsibility of our government. Life and liberty are addressed to one degree or another by our executive, legislative and judicial branches, but our potential for happiness has lagged far behind.
As the quote above says (and does not say), freedom was once the province of white men; now the lack of that freedom and the subsequent loss of the potential for happiness belongs to all of us. Our happiness is kept from us by prisonlike schools and meaningless jobs, un(der)employment and untreated physical and psychological ailments, by political leaders who scare the votes out of us and corporate “persons” that buy up all the resources that have been created and defined by our labor.
Citizens are not treated like members of society but more like employees who can be cut loose for any reason large or small, whether that reason be an individual action or some greater event like the downturn of the stock market. We are lied to by our leaders and the mass media to such a great extent that it’s almost impossible to lay a finger on one thing that we can say, unequivocally, is true. We wage a “war on drugs” while our psychiatrists prescribe mood-altering medicines at an alarming rate. We eat and drink and smoke too much, and sleep too little. We worry about health and taxes and the stock market until one of the three finally drags us down. We fall for all sorts of get-rich-quick schemes, from the stock market to the lottery. We practice rampant consumerism, launch perpetual wars and seek out meaningless sex.
Through these studies we create aberrant citizens who glean their empty and impossible hopes from television, the Internet and stadium sports. These issues, and others, form the seat of our discontent, a throne of nails under a crown of thorns.
Happiness is considered by most to be a subset of wealth, which is not necessarily true. But even if it was true, most Americans are not wealthy, and most of those who are will lose that wealth before they die. Besides, money cannot buy happiness. It can buy bigger TVs and comelier sex partners; it can pay for liposuction and enough fossil fuel to speed away from smog-filled urban sprawls. Money can influence court verdicts, but it cannot buy justice. And without the bedrock of justice, how can any American citizen be truly happy?
Happiness is a state of mind cultivated under a sophisticated understanding of a rapidly changing world. In times gone by the world didn’t change so fast. As recently as the early twentieth century it would take a generation or more for knowledge to double; now the sum total of our knowledge doubles each year, perhaps even less than that. As technology and technique change, so does our world and our reactions to it. The Internet, gene-splicing, transportation, overpopulation and other vast areas of ever-growing knowledge and experience force significant changes in our lifestyles every few years.
The pursuit of happiness implies room to move, but the definition of that space has changed–from open fields to Internet providers, from talk with a friend or religious leader to psychotherapy and antidepression drugs.
If you are reading this essay and believe that you and the majority of your fellows are happy, content, satisfied and generally pleased with the potentials presented to you and others, then you don’t have to continue reading. I certainly do not wish to bring unhappiness to anyone who feels they fit into this world like a pampered foot into a sheepskin slipper.
Some of us are naturally happy; others have had the good fortune to be born at the right moment, in the right place. But many of us suffer under a corporatized bureaucracy where homelessness, illiteracy, poverty, malnourishment (both physical and spiritual) and an unrelenting malaise are not only possible but likely.
One cure–for those who feel that their pursuit of happiness has been sent on a long detour through the labor camps of American and international capitalism–is the institution of a government department that has as its only priority the happiness of all Americans.
At first blush this might seem like a frivolous suggestion. Each and every American is responsible for her or his own happiness, whatever that is, you might say. Furthermore, even if a government department was designed to monitor, propagate and ensure the happiness of our citizens, that department should not have the power or even the desire to enforce its conclusions on anyone.
But the suggestion here is to expand the possibilities for happiness, not to codify or impose these possibilities. Our Declaration of Independence says that the pursuit of happiness is an “unalienable right.” This language seems to make the claim that it is a government responsibility to ensure that all Americans, or as many as possible, are given a clear path toward that pursuit.
This is not and cannot be some rocky roadway through a barren landscape. Our world is more like the tropics, crowded by a lush forest of fast-growing knowledge. The path must be cleared every day. How can a normal person be happy with herself in this world, when the definition of the world is changing almost hourly?
What we need is a durable and yet flexible definition (created by study and consensus) that will impact the other branches of government. If we can, through a central agency, begin to come to a general awareness of what we need to clear the path to the pursuit of happiness, I believe that the lives we are living stand a chance of being more satisfying. If we can have a dialogue based on our forefathers’ declaration, I believe that we can tame the shadowy government and corporate incursions into our lives.
What do we need to be assured of our own path to a contented existence? Enough food to eat? Health? Help with childcare? A decent, fulfilling education? Should we feel that the land we stand on is ours? Or that our welfare is the most important job of a government that is made up by our shared citizenship?
These simple interrogations are complex in their nature. All paths are not the same; many conflict. But we need a government that assures us the promise of the Declaration of Independence. We need to realize that the ever more convoluted world of knowledge can flummox even the greatest minds. We need to concentrate on our own happiness if we expect to make a difference in the careening technological and slovenly evolving social world of the twenty-first century.