What does the Pursuit of Happiness mean?
By José Azel
What did the Founding Fathers wish to express in the Declaration of Independence highlighting the Pursuit of Happiness as an inalienable right along with Life and Liberty?
Apparently we are a very unhappy world. According to data offered by Yuval Noah Harari in his provocative new book “Homo Deus — A Brief History of Tomorrow”, more people commit suicide than all those killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals.
In 2012 around 56 million died in the world; 120,000 killed in wars, 500,000 for crimes, 800,000 suicides.
Not because we are terribly underprivileged and hungry. Today, for the first time in history, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little. 2.1 billion people were overweight in 2014, compared to 850 million undernourished. In 2010, while hunger and malnutrition together killed 1 million, obesity killed 3 million.
Interesting: in developed countries like Switzerland or France, with high prosperity, about 25 people commit suicide for every 100,000. In developing countries, suffering from poverty and instability, the suicide rate is around one person in 100,000. It seems that the eternal advice is true: money does not make happiness.
So how to see the pursuit of happiness? A new focus on our collective unhappiness comes from the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan. In the 1970s the Fourth Dragon King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, made an extraordinary statement to a Head of State: “We do not believe in Gross National Product. Gross National Happiness is more important.” So Bhutan pioneered the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which was enacted in its 2008 Constitution.
In contrast to the Gross National Product (GNP) that measures economic results, the Gross National Happiness index also aims to measure net environmental impacts, spiritual and cultural growth of citizens, physical and mental health, and strength of the collective and political systems of the country. country.
The FNB emphasizes collective happiness and harmony with nature as the goal of governing, which philosophically harmonizes with Bhutan’s Buddhist identity and culture.
Of course, any FNB measurement is intricate, complex, and riddled with estimates and subjectivity. How exactly to measure the spiritual and cultural growth of citizens? What makes someone happy may be totally irrelevant to others.
It is difficult to measure national happiness. I give credit to Bhutan for trying; have developed a sophisticated index of nine domains that contribute to happiness: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity, and standard of living.
My problem with Bhutan’s approach is that the goal is not just to measure happiness, but to integrate the FNB philosophy into public policies that require government intervention.
Supporters of the FNB index argue that GNP is an outdated economic measure that governments should replace with FNB. Thus, they make national happiness the responsibility of government; that is the antithesis of freedom.
Consider the absurdity of Nicolás Maduro creating a Ministry of Happiness in Venezuela . Which brings me to my initial question: What did the U.S. Founding Fathers understand by Pursuit of Happiness?
The Declaration explicitly proclaims that the government must guarantee the right to the pursuit of happiness, not the right to happiness. In fact, as Noah Hariri points out in his book, “Thomas Jefferson did not hold the state responsible for the happiness of its citizens. Rather, he sought only to limit the power of the state.”
It is our right to seek happiness as we see fit, and the State should not interfere in our decisions.
The irony is that while the right to the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence attempted to curtail state power, it has been distorted like the right to happiness by expanding state intervention.
If the government manages happiness in the Gross National Happiness index, and something makes us unhappy, the State should do something to correct it. Precisely the opposite of what Jefferson understood as the right to pursue happiness.
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José Azel left Cuba in 1961 as a 13 year-old political exile in what has been dubbed Operation Pedro Pan — the largest unaccompanied child refugee movement in the history of the Western Hemisphere. He is currently dedicated to the in-depth analyses of Cuba’s economic, social and political state, with a keen interest in post-Castro-Cuba strategies.