No, that headline is not click bait. Happiness is available to every person, including you. In fact the Declaration of Independence says that happiness is your right.

In these days of so many individuals declaring their own self-interested rights, the historic document takes us to far greater heights.

The second paragraph in the Declaration begins:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

And there it is: all people have a right to live, a right to be free, and a right to happiness. Those rights are “unalienable,” which means they cannot be taken away from the holder.

“But wait,” you might be thinking. “It says the pursuit of happiness.” It does indeed, and to many today that sounds like this. “You have the right to go after happiness.”

However pursuit in 1776, especially here, meant “achieve” rather than “chase.”

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a historian and son of a historian, pointed that out back in the 1960’s. His study answered my question about why I had a right to life and liberty, but only the right to “pursue” (in the modern definition) happiness.

But it did not answer my other question about the phrase, which is a little more challenging: What is happiness?

Defining Happiness

Dictionaries will tell you that happiness is “the state of being happy,” then go on to say that happy is “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.”

That is the happy of Don’t Worry, Be Happy. It is the happy of Happy Birthday. Whether or not it is the happy of Happy Gilmore is an interesting question.

But it is not the happy of the Declaration of Independence.

I don’t mean to dismiss pleasure or contentment. They are important. For now, though, let us turn the pages of something other than a dictionary to find a deeper meaning of happiness.

You won’t be surprised to hear that great thinkers going back thousands of years considered the topic of happiness. Even Jesus had some quite profound and surprising things to say about it.

Did those thinkers all agree on what happiness was? For the most part they did! Here is a fun test that might help you understand their conclusion. Complete this sentence: I want to be happy because __________________.

And the survey says…

OK, that was a trick question. There is no “because,” and the simple reason is that being happy is the end goal. As Mortimer J. Adler said, “Happiness is the ultimate good that everyone seeks.”

Now we are getting somewhere! Happiness is not a feeling, it is a state of being. Rich people and poor people alike are sometimes happy people. Sick people and healthy people are also both often happy. Circumstances, which are mostly beyond our control, are not the determining factor in happiness.

Even though both the rich and poor can be and are happy, we still persist in thinking, “If I just had a little more money I would be happy.”

Here’s an interesting insight for you: even the rich say that!

Money really cannot buy you happiness. It can certainly buy you pleasure, at least for a moment. Ask any user of cocaine how that felt the first time, and how they chased it, and how much it cost them.

Even if we all want pleasure, it is not “the ultimate good that everyone seeks.”

Good and happy

If you think philosophers have spent a lot of time on the topic of happiness, you should see how much effort they have put into good! Often this shows up as “good and evil,” because sometimes it makes sense to think about them together.

For now, though, let good (after all, we are Do Good U) be our focus. Here’s a story to help.

Imagine you are invited to meet with four very special benefactors, each of whom promises to make your life good.

Naturally, you go.

The first benefactor you meet is an impeccably dressed man. “I can give you wealth,” he says, “and all that comes with it. All you have to do is give me most of your time and attention, and keep me uppermost in your mind.”

Next is a very fit, very beautiful woman. She says, “I can give you excellent health, strength and good looks. Just spend most of your time with me and keep me first in your thoughts.”

Benefactor three is a hip young man carrying two phones. He snaps your pic and does something with it. “I’ve already started making you socially famous,” he says. “That post will have a million views, and we can get many more. It takes time, of course, so remember to bring me into everything you do.”

The final benefactor is a woman who almost glows with serenity. Her gifts, she says, are wisdom and the moral virtues. You ask her, “Do I need to spend all my time with you?”

“In a way,” she answers. “If you truly want my gifts we can’t have a casual relationship. I need to live in you.”

“And if I do,” she continues, “you can have all those other goods with far less effort, because I will help you get them in the right ways and in the right amounts.”

Which benefactor will you choose?

One last insight before you decide. Only the goods of wisdom and virtue are completely in your control. The goods of wealth, health, and even friendship often depend on chance.

How to be happy

Philosophers and theologians agree on this: the “soul goods” of the virtues and wisdom are desired naturally. Without them we feel that something is missing, and true happiness is not possible — even if we possess the lesser (but useful) goods of wealth, health, and social standing in abundance.

Let wisdom, courage, honesty, humility, love, faith and the other virtues live in your soul, and you will find happiness.

Do good. It’s in you!

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