We have a constitutional right to pursue happiness but many don’t know how

January 7, 2020 6:00 am
Declaration of Independence

The United States of America’s Declaration of Independence. Photo by Getty Images.

Every January, we wish each other “Happy New Year” with the focus on the year instead of on happiness. 

Happiness is a distinct American virtue. It is one of three natural rights along with life and liberty in the Declaration of Independence whose author, Thomas Jefferson, never explained what he meant by pursuing it. 

Jefferson’s notion of rights was based, in part, on the philosophy of John Locke who believed in life, liberty and estate. Jefferson borrowed from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which mentions “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

“Property” is one of those dubious words with dissimilar meanings, as in owning something, specifically land, or harboring an intrinsic trait.  

Benjamin Franklin, who helped edit the Declaration of Independence, is purported to have dissuaded Jefferson from using “the pursuit of property.” Franklin’s litmus test was a tax. You could levy one on an estate but not a state of being.

Jefferson also drew inspiration from James Madison who believed conscience was “the most sacred of all property.”  

There’s that word again. What could the founders possibly have meant?

Many of us pursued things and goods, property, during the gift-giving holidays. That’s the tradition. Even the most desired present — a first car, last house payment, the long-anticipated engagement ring — will make us happy … for a while. Then we will return to our normal state of being, our genetic set point for happiness. 

As Jonathan Haidt notes in “The Happiness Hypothesis,” some of us are predisposed to be happy, winning what he calls “the cortical lottery.” The rest of us didn’t lose. We just have fewer winning numbers in our DNA. 

Happiness is fleeting, even for the best of us. That is why it must be pursued. 

If you want to accelerate that pursuit, show gratitude. You can increase your happiness level as much as 25%.

I raised my happiness set point last month because of a Christmas gift that the U.S. Postal Service sent to the wrong destination.

I needed that present for my wife and had spent days browsing online to find just the right one. The parcel went from New York to Des Moines and then, for some inexplicable reason, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, instead of Ames, Iowa. 

I called my local post office, and they put an intercept on the package. It was late, but I got it in time for the holidays.

Instead of being irritated, I went to the bakery and ordered a sheet cake inscribed: “Thank you, Ames Post Office!”

I took my 17-year-old son with me and waited in line behind people bearing priority mail gifts. When we were called to the counter, my son gave the cake to the surprised clerk.

The rest of our day was routine, but we felt as if we had won something.  

Here are 10 ways to show gratitude:

  1. Contact a person who changed the course of your life and tell them what it meant to you. 
  2. Pay a visit or write a letter to your favorite K-12 teacher, remembering the role that they played in your educational development.
  3. Start a gratitude journal, listing at least once per week all the things you are thankful for in your life.   
  4. Keep track of all the kind deeds and words that people do and say to you in the course of your day. You may be surprised at how many such gestures are made when we are on the lookout for them. 
  5. Go for an entire day without criticizing others in your household, workplace or online. Instead, compliment people when occasion arises. 
  6. Make eye contact and be gracious to all you normally might overlook in your routine: the barista with your coffee, the store clerk with your order, the bank teller with your withdrawal, and so on. 
  7. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or participate in a community service project, making new friends in the process. 
  8. Deliver a donation in person to your favorite charity and ask for a tour of facilities. Show appreciation to staff and clients alike. 
  9. Spend quality time with a child. Play a board game. Sing. Dance. Color.
  10. Pay attention to pets, especially dogs, whose happy disposition is boundless. Don’t have a pet? Visit the animal shelter. You might return home with one.

The properties of happiness are self-evident and undeniable. Pursue them mindfully and discover what America stands for.

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Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics."