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04 Jul

The Pursuit of Happiness

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Once the Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed in the summer of 1776, the pursuit of happiness — the pursuit of the good of the whole, because the good of the whole was crucial to the genuine well-being of the individual — became part of the fabric (at first brittle, to be sure, but steadily stronger) of a young nation.

The thinking about happiness came to American shores most directly from the work of John Locke and from Scottish-Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson. During the Enlightenment, thinkers and politicians struggled with redefining the role of the individual in an ethos so long dominated by feudalism, autocratic religious establishments and the divine rights of kings. A key insight of the age was that reason, not revelation, should have primacy in human affairs. That sense of reason was leading Western thinkers to focus on the idea of happiness, which in Jefferson’s hands may be better understood as the pursuit of individual excellence that shapes the life of a broader community.”

From Free to Be Happy, by Jon Meacham in Time Magazine, on the meaning of happiness in the US constitution.

Hutcheson was primarily concerned with “flourishing” rather than happiness as hedonism, though it should be noted that he was not a puritan and had no problem with luxury or consumption as long as it was not excessive.

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