The Pursuit of Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre


It's been said that America's three greatest contributions to world civilization are jazz, baseball, and the Declaration of Independence. Much as I like the first two, today is a fine day to ponder the third not only because it is Thomas Jefferson's birthday but also because this blog post is entry number 1776 in the online journal I've been keeping since November of 2000.

In line with my philosophical interests, I'd particularly like to delve into the meaning of Jefferson's felicitous phrase "the pursuit of happiness" (about which, no doubt, several books have been written, although I've not read them). Nowadays we think of happiness as a positive feeling or what the psychologists call subjective well-being - essentially, pleasure. Yet Jefferson and the Founders weren't hedonists or utilitarians, for they felt an abiding kinship with classical conceptions of the good life, as found especially in Cicero, the Stoics, and Aristotle.

For these thinkers, phenomena like knowledge and virtue are pursued for their own sake, even if they do not result in further benefits like wealth or pleasure. And because these phenomena are fundamental goals or purposes for human beings, they are key constituents of living well (Greek εὐδαιμονία).

The most sophisticated account of happiness in this deeper sense comes from Aristotle's philosophy of human affairs, which I will explore in my forthcoming book Complete Yourself. Aristotle emphasizes repeatedly that eudaimonia is an activity, not a state of mind or a subjective experience. Thus the constituent goals of eudaimonia must be activities, too: what matters is not virtue as an acquired trait, but virtue exercised, especially activity in accordance with virtue; not knowledge obtained, but knowledge exercised, especially activity in accordance with reason; not pleasure as a feeling experienced, but the enjoyed activity itself.

Did the Founders have an action-oriented conception of human flourishing in mind when they enshrined "the pursuit of happiness" into the Declaration? It seems likely to me. Indeed, I'd further propose that coming to a firmer understanding of human flourishing would enable us to better appreciate and extend the principles of freedom we've been bequeathed by our forebears, for America is an ongoing project to which we all must contribute.

(Cross-posted at


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