Most folks in the United States of America know these words as part of the Declaration of Independence. We simply accept that these are the terms used by the authors to express our rights as citizens of this country.
Life is pretty self explanatory. To keep breathing and not feel imperiled of being killed. Yes. The right to life is simple to understand.
Liberty is a bit more hazy. If one takes it as meaning doing just anything we want to do, it can become a license to do anything from skipping down the street to mass murder. Still, most of us realize as we grow up that liberty, as spoken of in the Declaration of Independence, has some rules and regulations attached; especially if we all expect to keep our right to life and liberty intact.
The pursuit of happiness seems to be the most difficult to discern since it supposes that we even know what will make us happy in the first place. Most of us as human beings think we know what makes us happy, but really don’t.
When I was a kid, I thought a handful of candy would make me happy and it did as long as the candy lasted. That’s it. Happiness is fleeting. We can be ‘happy,’ but for most of us, it just doesn’t last long enough. The shiny new car we thought would make us happy soon gets old. The new house we were sure would make us happy ages and needs repair. An exciting new love lapses into a boring relationship. That playful puppy that made us so happy becomes an old limping dog. Even our own youth moves into middle than old age. What makes us happy today may fade from interest tomorrow.
Ha! Here is where the word ‘happy’ gets even more illusive. Happy means what? Does it mean what we need to be happy or what we want? Does the right to the pursuit of happiness mean we are free from need? Hmmm?
Countless religions have tried to define this seemingly simple, yet very complex notion of pursuing happiness. I can vividly remember my mother trying to help me deal with this concept. She would say “I want you to think before you ask for things or spend your money on them. Do you really need this or that? Or do you simply want it? Will it make you happy in the long run? Or just for now?”
It’s taken me a lot of time and practice to deal with this concept. I am now 25 years old and from time to time I still have to grapple with this concept before I pursue a particular new source of happiness as a need or want.
This leads me to a question: Just what do we really need in life? Healthy food and water, warm dry shelter, clean air, companionship and, of course, enough clothing to cover our nakedness and keep us warm in a cold climate. On a basic level, these will keep us alive. On that level we have all we need and could pursue happiness? Or do we? In the USA, if we only have these basics we could not possibly be happy. Could we? Well. Maybe not.
The next question is: Is happiness the same as contentment? Can one be content when only their most basic needs are met? Not in my neighborhood. Is it in yours?
Notice that the authors of the Declaration of Independence were wise enough to state that ‘the pursuit of happiness’ and not that ‘happiness’ itself was our right as a citizen. Smart guys. They knew that happiness is very subjective. What makes one person happy may not make another person happy.
Back to the original premise. What if we are unable to attain the proper education, a decent paying job and the basic necessities of life? What if our liberty is curtailed by ill health or old age? Can we still pursue happiness? Or is that also unattainable? Is the right to life and liberty intrinsic to the pursuit of happiness? I believe we need life and liberty in order to pursue happiness.
If these rights are denied for any reason to any citizen of the United States, do any of us really have them at all? Are we truly doing as our founders intended?