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Columnist Values the Right to Pursue Happiness

July 4, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT

TRANSCRIPT

CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: Thomas Jefferson was a genius. He was also a mystery.

When he drafted the Declaration of Independence, he rewrote a phrase from John Locke. The philosopher defended life, liberty and property. Jefferson changed it to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It was a curious word choice for a man who owned slaves as property, unable to pursue happiness.

Since then, the cause of freedom has won many hard-fought victories. America is a happier place today. Still, we wonder, how happy? What makes you happy?

A Pew poll found married Americans to be happier than un-marrieds by almost 2 to 1. But are the marrieds truly happy or just content? Is that the same as happiness, or should we hold out for additional bliss?

A vast industry of sociologists, psychologists, economists and pollsters devotes itself to answering questions like that. Bookstore shelves groan with titles like “Stumbling on Happiness,” “The Art of Happiness,” and “The Geography of Bliss.”

There’s even a “Journal of Happiness Studies,” published in the Netherlands and devoted to the subjective enjoyment of life. I can’t imagine being objective about happiness.

For years, the mountain kingdom of Bhutan has kept a gross national happiness index. Apparently the Bhutanese weren’t happy with royalty: Bhutan’s royal family recently stepped aside to let democracy take over. Now the people can better pursue their own happiness.

That’s not easy. Elections are driven at least as much by unhappiness as by joy. Long-term data have found political conservatives to be happier than liberals year after year. That finding brings glee to conservatives.

It also brings to mind an observation that the satirist Ambrose Bierce made more than a century ago. “Conservatives are content with existing evils,” he wrote, “as opposed to liberals, who are always looking for new ones.”

If there’s something to be said for unhappiness, Eric G. Wilson’s “Against Happiness” sings the praises of the blues. Essentially, Wilson says, gloom is good, or it can be.

Major figures as varied as Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Emily Dickinson found some inspiration in their melancholy. Woody Allen has built a career out of what he calls a life divided between the horrible and the miserable.

Other people build careers out of helping others to pursue happiness to the end. Forty years ago, on the night before his murder, Martin Luther King displayed remarkable hope, even as he anticipated his own imminent death.

THE REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., civil rights leader: I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.

CLARENCE PAGE: It would be his final sermon. Forty years later, many African-Americans wonder whether we, too, have reached the Promised Land or whether we’re still wandering in the wilderness.

So do many of today’s new immigrants to America, lured not by the promise of happiness, but by the opportunity to pursue it. We’re still a nation of pursuers, always seeking happiness, yet always restless, even when we think we’ve found it.

I’m Clarence Page.