What did Thomas Jefferson mean by "the pursuit of happiness" when he penned it into the Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right? In a recent Wall Street Journal column1, Darren McMahon explores this curious but carefully chosen phrase.2

"The pursuit of happiness" peppered eighteenth century sermons. God delighted to see his creatures happy. There was far less brooding about original sin than in earlier times. As the not-so-pious Benjamin Franklin opined, "wine is living proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy."

Two years before the Declaration of Independence, the First Continental Congress had complained of the king's intrusions into colonists' "life, liberty and property". Of course property could bring pleasure, but property was not what Jefferson said or meant by "happiness"3. From Aristotle and Cicero, along with Locke and Newton, Jefferson learned "that happiness was the great goal of the well-lived life, achieved through discipline, self-sacrifice and reasoned moderation", writes Professor McMahon.

Paris Hilton take note: Jeffersonian happiness is founded not in momentary pleasure, but rather upon virtue. Virtue at its highest is working for the public good. Jefferson foresaw that independent Americans would discover their own happiness by pursuing the happiness of others. As Professor McMahon emphasizes, "no 18th century Founder, whether a Christian or classicist, or cultivator of simple pleasures would have disagreed."

Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, was astonished to discover that among 200 cultures and traditions over the past 3000 years, there is virtual agreement as to the highest valued virtues:
  1. Wisdom and knowledge
  2. Courage
  3. Love and humanity
  4. Justice
  5. Temperance and self-restraint
  6. Transcendence and spirituality

That research further identified twenty-four positive character traits most closely associated with attainment of those six anchor virtues. At least twelve of these positive character traits involve pursuing the happiness of others.
  1. Curiosity
  2. Love of learning
  3. Judgment/critical thinking/open-mindedness
  4. Ingenuity, originality, practical intelligence, street smarts
  5. Social intelligence, personal intelligence, emotional intelligence
  6. Perspective
  7. Valor and bravery
  8. Perseverance, industry, diligence
  9. Integrity, genuineness, honesty
  10. Kindness and generosity
  11. Loving and allowing oneself to be loved
  12. Citizenship, teamwork, loyalty
  13. Fairness/equity
  14. Leadership
  15. Self-control
  16. Prudence, discretion, caution
  17. Humility/modesty
  18. Appreciation of beauty/excellence
  19. Gratitude
  20. Hope/optimism/future-mindedness
  21. Spirituality/sense of purpose/faith/religiousness
  22. Forgiveness and mercy
  23. Playfulness and humor
  24. Zest/passion/enthusiasm4

Seligman's positive psychology suggests the likeliest route to our own authentic happiness lies in pursuing the happiness of others.5

Mr. Jefferson, meet Professor Seligman.

So long Paris Hilton.

—Gerald Le Van, July 2005

1 "A Right, From the Start" Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2005, W11. For WSJ online subscribers, click here.

2 McMahon is a professor of history at Florida State University. His new book, "Happiness: A History" is due for publication in January 2006.

3 In Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence he wrote "pursuit of happiness" one time. No corrections or interlineations suggest he was searching for words. See

4 According to Professor Seligman, each of us excels in three to five of these positive character traits. His VIA Signature Strengths survey offers to measure these traits. It is available on his website: Seligman's latest book is Authentic Happiness : Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (Free Press 2004)

5 For more on Seligman's positive psychology, click here.

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