The pursuit of happiness vs. the pursuit of property
This article was originally published in the April 13, 2014 edition of “The Dallas Morning News”. This is the third essay I have written for the folks at DMN and I look forward to doing more soon!
In 1776, America’s Founding Fathers helped create the first country in history that enshrined the concept of “happiness” in its founding documents.
By choosing to insert “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, they were articulating their belief that it is “self-evident” that the right to pursue happiness is every bit as important as “life” and “liberty.” The truth is, the authors debated whether “property” should substitute for the nebulous concept of “happiness.” But in the end, “happiness” won.
There was nothing stopping them from scribbling down all four concepts (life, liberty, happiness, and property) in the letter they sent to King George. However, the founders wisely knew that “property” and “happiness” do not conflate. They prioritized.
Almost 250 years later, we still talk patriotically about “life” and how government should help protect it. We still talk patriotically about “liberty” and how government should help ensure it. It’s the “pursuit of happiness” that has gotten mixed up.
Americans are much more likely today to talk patriotically about acquiring and protecting property than we are about the pursuit of happiness. And it’s not just acquiring the stuff. We worry about paying bills incurred to pay for our stuff. We worry about mortgages so we can have a place to keep our stuff. We worry about insurance to protect our stuff. We worry about car payments so we can get to work and make money to buy more stuff.
But how often do we stop to consider: Is all this stuff making us happy?
Admittedly, the happiness of a country is a hard thing to measure. Measuring the economic activity of a country is relatively easy; we track that by gross domestic product, or its sister measurement, gross national product. The problem with using GDP or GNP as yardsticks to measure success is that they measure some pretty miserable and deplorable things.
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As Robert Kennedy pointed out in his prescient 1968 speech at the University of Kansas, GNP is a terrible way to measure what is important: “Gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.” But it fails to measure the health of our children, intelligent public debate, integrity, compassion.
In short, it measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Bhutan, a tiny country deep in the Himalaya Mountains where governmental success takes into account not only gross domestic product but also “gross national happiness.” There are four pillars to Bhutan’s measurement of GNH: the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance. It values things like clean air and water, universal education, healthy lifestyles, security and moderation. In Bhutan, government programs and policies must take into account the effect they will have on all citizens, not just those who are well connected or the highest bidders.
Now, I acknowledge that some people will view all this as pie-in-the-sky, touchy-feely gobbledygook and come up with a reason why this won’t work in America. But I posit that our Founding Fathers would disagree. They would be willing to take good ideas wherever they came from, even a tiny nation tucked far away in the Himalaya Mountains.
For those who aren’t so sure, remember that this is a concept found in the Christian Bible, from the book of Luke, as well: “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.”
There is a quote that was popular in the 1800s that says, “The U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself.” To me, that means happiness is not something that government can ensure; rather, the government can help create a habitat for happiness and fertilize the ground in which it grows. By enshrining happiness in our founding documents, our forefathers were sending us a message across the centuries about what they found really important.
There is a human tendency to more highly value what we can count. But that doesn’t mean we can’t fight that tendency. Focusing only on growing an economy and getting more stuff is not the path to happiness.
Jonathan Look Jr. grew up near Houston and is a photographer and freelance writer now experiencing Southeast Asia. You can follow his adventures and contact him through his website, lifepart2.com.