The Pursuit of Happiness

The Pursuit of Happiness

". . . They are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."  When Jefferson spoke of pursuing happiness, he had nothing vague or private in mind.  He meant a public happiness which is measurable; which is, indeed, the test and justification of any government.

In Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence Garry Wills analyzes every phrase of that document, examining philosophies that informed it and cultural developments and political circumstances that led to it.  He explores the Declaration as a revolutionary charter, a scientific paper, a moral paper, a sentimental paper and a national symbol.   He presents the reader with insights into the many influences on Jefferson  among them David Hume, John Locke, and Frances Hutcheson who in 1725 coined the phrase "the greatest happiness for the greatest number."  As for Jefferson’s use of "the pursuit of happiness," Wills argues against a commonly held belief among scholars that Jefferson took this phrase lightly from the works of philosopher John Locke who spoke of "life, liberty, and property".  Jefferson was not making an oblique philosophical reference to property as equivalent to or a definition of happiness, nor to property rights of any kind.  It was Wills I quoted as I began:  "When Jefferson spoke of pursuing happiness, he had nothing vague or private in mind.  He meant a public happiness which is measurable; which is, indeed, the test and justification of any government."

What is this thing called happiness?  How do we measure it?  

In 2008 Nicholas Sarkozy, then President of France, created the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, chaired by Nobel Prize Winning economists Joseph Stiglitz (a former World Bank chief economist) and Amartya Sen (professor at Harvard and an authority on poverty).  In September 2009 the Commission issued its final report.  Amidst a growing financial crisis and increasing concern over the impacts of climate change, Stiglitz and Sen wrote it "has long been clear that gross domestic product (GDP) is an inadequate metric to gauge well-being over time particularly in its economic, environmental, and social dimensions . . . often referred to as sustainability." (p.8)  They distinguish between assessments of current well-being and of sustainability.  Current well-being has to do with economic resources, such as income, and with non-economic things like what they do and what they can do, how they feel, and the natural environment they live in. Whether these levels of well-being can be sustained over time depends on whether the capital that matters for our lives (natural, physical, human, social) is passed on to future generations. (p.11)

One example Stiglitz and Sen use to illustrate this shift in thinking is increased driving.  As GDP is measured now, increased driving is a good thing, a very good thing. It increases production and consumption of both gasoline and cars and all manner of things associated with them. But if GDP were measuring wellbeing and sustainability we’d have other things to account for, like the hours of leisure and work time lost to long commutes and traffic jams, and the environmental costs of pollutants both on the production and consumption sides of the equation. (Peter Goodman, Emphasis on Growth is Called Misguided 9/22/09)   

As the report noted, "What we measure affects what we do; and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted." Within two years of the report, the governments of France, Great Britain, and the United States began processes to determine meanings and measures for wellbeing and sustainability – gross wellbeing to go with gross domestic product.                                                                  

Well before the 2009 report; before France, Britain, and the United States headed down this path, and long after Jefferson penned the phrase the pursuit of happiness . . . in 1972 the term "gross national happiness" was coined by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of the tiny Eastern Himalayan kingdom called Druk Yul or the Land of the Thunder Dragon, better known to the world as Bhutan.  As the King prepared to open Bhutan to the "modern age" he used the phrase "gross national happiness" to signal a commitment to developing an economy based on Buddhist spiritual values.  The Drukpa Kagyue school of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion. The King believed that beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side, as they complement and reinforce each other.

The four pillars (the framework) of GNH (gross national happiness) in Bhutan as stated on the Gross National Happiness Commission’s web site are:
i. Developing a dynamic economy as the foundation for a vibrant democracy;
ii. Harmonious Living  in harmony with tradition and nature;
iii. Effective and good governance; and
iv. Our people: investing in the nation’s greatest asset.
Collaborating with an international group of scholars and empirical researchers, the Centre for Bhutan Studies in the capital city Thimphu further developed the four pillars, expanding them to eight general contributors to gross national happiness:  physical, mental and spiritual health, time balance, social and community vitality, cultural vitality, education, living standards, good governance, and ecological vitality.

The GNH framework of four pillars and eight contributors reflects its Buddhist origins.  The four pillars parallel the Four Noble Truths of the Buddhist tradition, the first teachings of the Buddha after attaining Nirvana.  The eight contributors to happiness parallel to Buddhism’s Noble Eight Fold Path – the way leading to cessation of suffering and the achievement of enlightenment. It is the path of insight into the true nature of reality and to eradicating greed, hatred and delusion.  GNH is also grounded in empirical research from psychology and other social sciences.  (2011 Report from the Bhutanese Government’s Gross National Happiness Commission found on the Commission’s website. Sources: (;; Wikipedia)

A nation need not be Buddhist in order to follow the lead of the Bhutanese. In April this year, Bhutan hosted meetings at the United Nations following the adoption of the July 2011 UN Resolution "Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development" in the General Assembly.  The resolution invites all UN Member State governments to "pursue public policy steps that would better capture the importance of pursuing happiness and well-being in development."

Our 2012 elections are now over.  I am holding on to optimism, and even some hope, that we will see change in our political discourse.  Changes away from political identity conflicts forcing people into corners and off any common ground that might exist.  Changes away from political fundamentalisms that view compromise, and even dialogue that suggests compromise, as failure or worse.   I find the story of Bhutan compelling becaus
e it allows me to see possibilities for our political
life, possibilities rooted in our national story and the pursuit of happiness.  As Garry Wills said, when Jefferson spoke of pursuing happiness, he had nothing vague or private in mind.  He meant a public happiness which is measurable; which is the test and justification of any government.

When the Bhutanese King spoke in 1972, he set in motion the creation of a new and different frame for understanding the purpose of government and the happiness  the collective well-being – of the people.  We have the need and opportunity to do the same here  to create a new frame for our political life.  George Lakoff, (Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at UC Berkeley, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant about the creation and use of frames in the politics) defines frames as structures of thought we use every day.  All words in all languages are defined in terms of frame-circuits in the brain. Ultimately, framing is about ideas, about how we see the world.  And how we see the world determines how we act.  

If I were reframing the purpose of our government I would take one item from the Bhutanese, a few words from the Declaration of Independence and a page from George Lakoff. From the Bhutanese happiness index I’d take investing in our people  our nation’s greatest asset.  From the Declaration of Independence I’d take the words unalienable rights; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; secure these rights; governments are instituted.  The page I’d take from Lakoff is about democracy.

Democracy starts with citizens caring about one another and acting responsibly on that sense of care, taking responsibility both for oneself and for one’s family, community, country, people in general, and the planet. The role of government is to protect and empower all citizens equally via The Public: public infrastructure, laws and enforcement, health, education, scientific research, protection, public lands, transportation, resources, art and culture, trade policies, safety nets, and on and on. Nobody makes it on their own.  We all depend on The Public.  If you have done well enough; if you have done really well; if you became wealthy, you depended on The Public, and you have a responsibility to contribute significantly to The Public so that others can benefit in the future.  (from Framing Occupy Wall Street, October 19, 2011)

At this point in my writing, I found myself thinking as much about the holidays as about politics.  Within a gross domestic product frame, this season is about the connection between consumer spending and a thriving economy.  Within a gross domestic happiness frame, this season is an opportunity to give back when so many struggle with poverty, job loss, foreclosure, and the devastation resulting from Superstorm Sandy.   

Thoughts of the holidays gave way to this simple prayer.  May we engage in the pursuit of happiness  we here together, we neighbors in the same town, state, nation.  May we be a Democracy where we care about one another and act responsibly on that sense of care.  May we be a country where the role of government is to protect and empower all people and to do so equally. May the measure of our success as a nation be the wellbeing of all.