The Declaration of Independence says that each of us has an "inalienable right" to pursue happiness. Unlike the Constitution, the Declaration has no legal force. But suppose that it did: How should we construe the right to pursue happiness?
I have been asking myself and others that question repeatedly over the last five years, as the director of a project on The Pursuit of Happiness for the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Twenty scholars have been looking at happiness from numerous points of view, including experimental, clinical and evolutionary psychology, social science, moral philosophy, theology, Biblical studies, economics, political history and Jewish law. It was a hugely productive experience for all of us, but we are no nearer to answering the question that I posed above. The problem is that the words "happy" and "happiness" are used today in variety of interrelated but distinct senses.
Originally, "happy" meant "fortunate," "lucky." (Compare "happenstance" and "happy coincidence.") But by Shakespeare's day it had acquired the sense of personal fulfillment combined with contentment.
In vernacular discourse today, "happy" denotes a mood (the opposite of "sad"), but it also has a broader sense, as when we ask whether someone is happy (i.e., fulfilled, settled) in her job. That range of usage figures in our central modern ethical problem: Does one have the right to prefer one's own happiness to the well-being of others, to whom one owes a duty of service (e.g., by abandoning an unhappy marriage)?
Happiness in that sense is a subjective state (how one feels about oneself), and social scientists have been measuring subjective well-being for over 50 years. Recently, it has been a key notion in positive psychology. Happiness in this sense is radically subjective. It is an index of how people respond to a questionnaire about how they feel about themselves: either about their mood ("hedonic happiness") or about how well they are facing life's challenges ("eudemonic happiness").
In the modern period, "happiness" is the customary translation for eudaimonia in classical Greek ethics (beatitudo in Latin): the perfection or realization of a person's function as a human being, which is presumed to be the ultimate human good, the goal of goals. In classical eudaimonism, happiness was usually identified with virtuous activity. For eudaimonist philosophers, there ought to be no conflict between altruism and the pursuit of one's own happiness, for the virtuous person is necessarily altruistic. Who would consider selfishness to be a human perfection? Happiness in this sense is by definition the goal of life, whatever that may turn out to be. As far as we know, Aristotle did not try to assess eudaimonia with questionnaires!
Patristic and medieval Christian theologians adopted but transformed philosophical eudaimonism by identifying happiness with post-mortem bliss: the beatific vision, or union with God. In this life, they argued, we can be happy only in hope. They did not mean that Christians should be depressed or sad. On the contrary, they expected them to rejoice. Moreover, the gift of hope is a kind of subjective well-being.
The Consolation of Philosophy, a treatise by a 6th-century theologian, Boethius, includes a classic statement of one strand of Christian eudaimonism. Boethius proves that God alone is happiness itself, whereas we can be happy only by participating in God (presumably in the next life: Boethius was on death row). Boethius uses two terms usually translated today as "happiness": beatitudo and felicitas. When Geoffrey Chaucer translated this work into English in the 14th century, he did not translate either term as "happiness." I doubt whether the idea would have crossed his mind. Instead, he rendered felicitas as "felicitee" (which was already available), and he coined a felicitous new word for beatitudo: "wellfulness."
In yet another range of modern uses, "happy" is a common translation of ashre in the Hebrew Bible, makarios in the Septuagint and the New Testament, and beatus in the Latin Bible. This usage is prominent in the proverbs known as beatitudes, which have the form, "Happy is the one who...." English translators have often preferred "blessed," but "happy" is more common today. In this sense, the "happy" person is righteous and favored by God: the type who any pious person would aspire to be.
During the happiness project, we found that the way the word "happiness" brings these (and many other) ideas into conversation is stimulating and productive. Nevertheless, the multiple senses of the term are a source of confusion and misunderstanding. In my current work on beatitudo in 13th-century theology, I am following Chaucer's lead and using "wellful" and "wellfulness" instead of "happy" and "happiness." At least they are free of misconceptions. Our several current uses of the term "happiness" are interrelated, but we need to step back from overuse of the term to appreciate those interrelations. Words matter, and they have a life of their own, which may help or hinder our thought.
If the Declaration had any legal force, we might choose to be originalists. Experts assure us that in the idiom of the day "to pursue happiness" meant "to live happily," and not (as it is usually supposed today) "to search for happiness." But I doubt whether the term "happiness" in the Declaration was intended to have a single determinate meaning. It was a pregnant, polysemous term, intended to inspire. It must have conveyed the notion of prosperity and personal well-being, especially a life of peace and the enjoyment of the fruits of one's own labor. It probably suggested freedom of the individual and the social group; the right to be fulfilled in one's own way. And it was surely freighted with moral meaning too. The pursuit of happiness included civic virtue and even the hope of post-mortem bliss.