The Pursuit of Happiness

First published in vol. 44 of the Sudbury Valley School Journal, Spring, 2015.

Pretty much all of us are familiar with the phrase in our Declaration of Independence that asserts that every person possesses three “inalienable rights”—“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This phrase trips lightly off our tongues, and rarely gives us pause to delve more deeply into its meaning. Indeed, today, if someone says this country offers a basic guarantee of a “right to life”, those words have come to be limited to a deep ongoing controversy surrounding abortion—hardly the context in which that concept was clothed when our Founding Fathers chose to include it in the country’s defining document. The notion of an individual’s right to enjoy “liberty” has come to be associated with self-centered individualism. And the “pursuit of happiness” is generally linked to a form of hedonism, celebration, and the avoidance of pain and distress. None of these current word associations has much to do with what that timeless phrase meant in 1776, when it was invented, and began a series of cultural shockwaves that still shake the world, and permanently revolutionized political theory.1

The order in which these rights were listed in the Declaration of Independence was not accidental. Each one was a sine qua non for the following one. Life was a necessary condition for liberty: if you considered a person’s right to live to be contingent on certain circumstances—for example, on his/her adherence to certain religious dogmas—then the notion of liberty is utterly meaningless. And without liberty, to consider the pursuit of happiness is not feasible at all. Or at least that is what the document suggests. But what did “pursuit of happiness” mean to Thomas Jefferson, who used the phrase, and his contemporaries, who embraced it?

The phrase actually meant “the pursuit of a meaningful life”, of a life that provides a person with a sense of satisfaction that what they are doing is worth living for. It came last on the list because personal freedom is a necessary condition for people to be able to choose their path in life. A sense of meaning always springs from within a person, from discovering the path one’s soul seeks to travel. James Hillman has called this “the soul’s code”2. No one else can dictate the destiny to which someone has been born.

The purpose for which this country was founded was to provide an environment which treasured every individual life, which provided each person with freedom of choice, and which gave everyone the opportunity to find meaning in life. The contrast between the basic ideals of the American Revolution and those of the French Revolution (to which it has often been compared) is striking. The motto of the French Revolution was liberte, egalite, fraternite—liberty, equality, and brotherhood, ideals that focused on society as a whole rather than on individuals. These ideals became the standard in Europe, thanks to the continental conquests of Napoleon in the early 19th century, and the contrast between European and American notions of ideal social organization remains sharp to this day.

The Declaration of Independence goes on to state another radical new concept, one that describes the means of social organization that can make such an environment possible for everyone—the establishment of a government that rules with the consent of the individuals being governed, the sole purpose of which is the protection and advancement of those unalienable rights each citizen enjoys.

Notice that there is no mention here of material prosperity. If you had asked the Founding Fathers whether it was important to them that every person be prosperous—whether financial success is a primary goal of a good life—they would probably find this a side issue. To be sure, all of them were well off; they certainly would not have glorified poverty, or identified that as a positive virtue. But neither was wealth glorified. They probably wouldn’t have been surprised that a free market system produces the highest level of material wealth of any economic system, inasmuch as it maximizes the ability of individuals to create entities that produce things other people want to trade for. After all, one of the prime causes of the American Revolution was the limitation England placed on the access of the American colonies to open markets. But at no point since the country first came into being was any particular economic system enshrined in law, nor was economic experimentation ever banned.

The rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were ethical goals set out by the Founders. They were the core of the country’s moral code. And this core was also at the center of what was then considered the main purpose of child rearing—namely, imbuing these values in children, both by example and by instruction. The family was the locus of primary ethical role-modeling, and such schools as existed for very young children focused on them as well.

The Industrial Revolution changed things suddenly, and dramatically. On the one hand, the ever-growing stream of material goods flowing from factories, distributed by means of increasingly efficient modes of transportation, and traded with the aid of ever more sophisticated methods of marketing, all led to the hope that every person, once and for all, could be raised out of the depths of bare subsistence to a level of comfort that allowed for life, freedom, and choice to be enjoyed by all. On the other hand, it led to the glorification of material well-being, and to the accumulation of wealth as a central life goal. Social theory and political philosophy that put financial considerations at the center of human concerns came into existence, and the notion that the ethical core of societies should be the maximization of material wealth for everyone gained prominence throughout the world.

The contrast between the ethical principles on which the country was founded, and the new moral compass of the Industrial Era, has engrossed our society for some time, and been at the heart of most of the political conflicts of the past half century. There is only one domain in which the Industrial ethic still dominates: schools, and the Education-Industrial-Complex which sets their agenda. This, despite the emergence of a Post-Industrial Information Age that has dramatically changed the balance between material production and the creation of ideas, knowledge, and art.

The Information Age has made it possible for individuals to sustain themselves while following their passion and exploring new horizons, making the pursuit of happiness a right that an ever growing number of people can enjoy. Despite this, the availability of environments in which children can grow up to enjoy that right has not become significantly greater. At present, Sudbury-model schools are the gold standard for such environments, and indeed their chief attraction is that students who attend are engaged at all times in the task of discovering just what kinds of things attract their passion and provide their lives with meaning. By contrast, the chief argument promoting traditional education is that it prepares students to get jobs in the global economy of the 21st century; and the more schooling they undertake, the more prepared they supposedly will be. The cry to be sufficiently prepared by schools to qualify for a decent material quality of life has reached almost hysterical proportions. A mere half century ago, many children didn’t graduate high school, and only a fairly small percentage of those who did went to college. Today, a college education is touted as a critical necessity for success in life. This, despite repeated studies that show that the alleged improvement in income resulting from more traditional schooling is largely a fantasy, especially when the indebtedness caused by that schooling is factored in.

The need to justify traditional schooling has become more acute due to the growing recognition that schools are increasingly centers of mindless coercion, little related to learning or problem solving or creative thought. What better justification than to say that sacrificing your freedom and your pursuit of happiness is worth it, for the sake of earning more money or getting a better job? The clash of values is transparent—“meaning” versus “material gain”.

With every passing year, it becomes more evident that finding meaning in life does not conflict in any way with the need to earn a living. There is no longer any need to try to justify the imprisonment of young people in coercive educational environments for the sake of physical survival. On the contrary, the pursuit of happiness—following your self-generated passions—has become the key to generating sufficient income to enjoy a satisfactory material environment, and schools like Sudbury Valley are in the vanguard of places where children can grow up discovering their soul’s code.


1. Calling these explosive “unalienable rights” self-evident truths, as they were casually described, must go down as one of the most brazen acts of chutzpah in the history of human thought. Not only had they never been singled out and identified before, but they also stood in direct contrast to the political theories that had dominated human thought up to that time.

2. See Hillman, James, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling (New York; Random House, 1996).

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