19 February 2007

"Rights" Part V: The Pursuit of Happiness

The right to the “pursuit of happiness” is probably the most difficult of the three inalienable rights listed in The Declaration of Independence. It is because it introduces personal preference, desire, into the equation. What makes one person happy, or what constitutes the pursuit of happiness, varies from person to person.

Happiness itself is a widely misunderstood term. Many people may feel that it relates to the day-to-day question, “are you happy?” and can be answered in various ways from time to time, depending on conditions. However, the idea of happiness which the Declaration speaks of is not this shifting, temporal question. It relates more to each individual’s pursuit of a good life, a life worth living. My understanding of happiness comes from Aristotle, through M.J. Adler (specifically The Time of Our Lives). When I think about my own happiness, I try to reframe my thoughts to pose myself the question, “are you headed towards having lived a good life?” It’s the future perfect tense that is important. At some point, when I die, the question will be answered. Until then, happiness, living a good life, is mine to pursue.

While I understand this now, and may have understood it better than I thought while I was younger, I don’t think it is intellectually beyond teenagers to actively learn about, think about and discuss the idea of happiness. And while I do not have teenagers of my own, I can say that, from my teaching experience, schools do not do a good job of discussing happiness.

Without getting into the why this is (which is, to me, all political – funny how discussion about the pursuit of happiness might be deemed “dangerous”), that happiness and other ideas should be part of the core curriculum in high schools is without doubt.

We are all barraged by advertising specifically designed to sell us things which will make us “happy”. This has been true for as long as advertising has existed. It falls into the capitalistic workings of America. And capitalism has done great things for people, for equality, and for the planet. But just like any other “-ism”, capitalism unbridled can have very negative effects, particularly on individuals.

To counteract these, we can teach kids about the idea of living a good life, of the pursuit of happiness in which money is a tool, a means to an end…that end not being the accumulation of more “stuff” to crowd life with. It is, rather, a means to more opportunity, to a wider road to travel towards a life lived well. It is that pursuit of happiness, that chance at happiness, which the Declaration refers to, not some strange, utopian guarantee of temporal “happiness” for all.

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