The Grammarphobia Blog

The pursuit of happiness

Q: The phrase in the Declaration of Independence about “the pursuit of happiness” is used to justify almost anything these days, but I don’t believe the Founding Fathers used “happiness” in the modern sense. In the 18th century, I’ve heard, “happiness” meant the right to better oneself based on merit. Is this true or am I totally off base?

A: I find three definitions of “happiness” in the Oxford English Dictionary, all of them in use well before the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.

(1) “Good fortune or luck in life or in a particular affair; success, prosperity” (first recorded in 1530).

(2) “The state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from success or the attainment of what is considered good” (1591).

(3) “Successful or felicitous aptitude, fitness, suitability, or appropriateness; felicity” (1599).

As a former philosophy major in college, I can tell you that Aristotle considered happiness (eudaimonia in Greek) to be the ultimate good, the highest goal. All other goods (pleasure, wealth, health, power, honor, etc.) are subordinate. He was closer to definition #2, since he said attainment of happiness consists not merely in virtue but in virtuous activity (that is, good works).

I’m reluctant to try to get into the minds of the Founding Fathers. It’s not exactly my bailiwick. You’d have to ask a Constitutional scholar or perhaps a psychoanalyst about this. But as far as I can tell the three definitions of “happiness” listed above were the only ones around at the time the Declaration of Independence was written.

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