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Free to Be Happy

(Take the TIME Happiness poll and see how you compare to our national survey, here. 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.

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Garry Wills’ classic 1978 book on the Declaration, , puts it well: “When Jefferson spoke of pursuing happiness,” wrote Wills, “he had nothing vague or private in mind.

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Economic and Political Weekly

He meant public happiness which is measurable; which is, indeed, the test and justification of any government.” (Read the cover story on how to find happiness here.) The idea of the pursuit of happiness was ancient, yet until Philadelphia it had never been granted such pride of place in a new scheme of human government — a pride of place that put the governed, not the governors, at the center of the enterprise. Scholars have long noted that for Aristotle and the Greeks, as well as for Jefferson and the Americans, happiness was not about yellow smiley faces, self-esteem or even feelings.

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There were to be many edits and changes to what became known as the Declaration of Independence — far too many for the writerly and sensitive Jefferson — but the fundamental rights of man as Jefferson saw them remained consistent: the rights to life, to liberty and, crucially, to “the pursuit of happiness.” To our eyes and ears, human equality and the liberty to build a happy life are inextricably linked in the cadences of the Declaration, and thus in America’s idea of itself.


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