The Pursuit of Happiness: What the Founders Meant—And Didn't

People who take part in their communities and governments are happier than those who don't


Last week I wrote about my father, Robert Kennedy, and his critique of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the measure of national well-being. He said, "It measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."

Had my father lived, we might have started work a lot sooner on truer ways to measure the state of the nation. Sadly, that did not happen. His critique of the GDP was forgotten. Instead, other values came to govern American life.

In 1968, David Frost asked both Ronald Reagan and my father to speak on the purpose of life. Ronald Reagan answered:

Well, of course, the biologist I suppose would say that like all breeds of animals, the basic instinct is to reproduce our kind, but I believe it's inherent in the concept that created our country--and in the Judeo-Christian religion--that man is for individual fulfillment; for our religion is based on the idea not of any mass movement but of individual salvation. Each man must find his own salvation; I would think that our national purpose in this country--and we have lost sight of it too much in the last three decades--is to be free--to the limit possible with law and order, every man to be what God intended him to be.

My father said:

I think you have to break it down to people who have some advantages, and those who are just trying to survive and have their family survive. If you have enough to eat, for instance, I think basically it's to make a contribution to those who are less well off. 'I complained because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.' You can always find someone that has a more difficult time than you do, has suffered more, and has faced some more difficult time one way or the other. If you've made some contribution to someone else, to improve their life, and make their life a bit more livable, a little bit more happy, I think that's what you should be doing.

Ronald Reagan's views came to dominate the political landscape. Later, when he was asked what he meant by freedom, he described driving up the Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible with the wind blowing through his hair. Here was a man truly doing his own thing, alone.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had nice houses. They could have enjoyed contented private lives. But it was not just about their property.

What Ronald Reagan is remembered for does not reflect what he actually did. Of course, he believed in public engagement. He was a six-term president of the Screen Actors guild, calling union membership a "fundamental human right." He was governor of California and president of the United States. He spoke eloquently about America as a "shining city on a hill."

Reagan is remembered, however, not for any detailed description of how to actually build that city, but for his anti-government rhetoric. He conflated freedom with unfettered markets, and his legacy was a glorification of private wealth over the public good.

Today, economics, with its misapprehension that human beings are cost/benefit calculating machines, has come to dominate our politics and our lives. We're left with an unnatural obsession with individualism, a single-minded focus on wealth over work, and an anti-government animus. We're obsessed by supply and demand, driven by marketing and advertising to buck up and demand more to meet the burgeoning supply. The result has been devastating. Millions have been harmed.

As I wrote last week, economists and leaders have begun to search for alternative ways to value the lives of individuals and evaluate the success of nations. Since many of the questions they're raising are philosophical, voices from the past may be helpful.

The Greeks, for instance, were very interested in well being. Aristotle thought happiness was the goal of human activity. For him, true happiness was something more than simply "Eat, drink, and be merry," or even the honor of high position. Real satisfaction didn't depend on the pleasures of the senses or what others thought of you. You could find genuine happiness only in a life of virtue and just actions. President Kennedy alluded to Aristotle when he defined happiness as "the full use of one's talents along the lines of excellence."

For the Greeks, excellence could be manifest only in a city or a community. Since human beings were political animals, the best way to exercise virtue and justice was within the institutions of a great city (the polis). Only beasts and gods could live alone. A solitary person was not fully human. In fact, the Greek word "idiot" means a private person, someone who is not engaged in public life. It was only in a fair and just society that can men and women could be fully human--and happy.

Presented by

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the author of Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Mixed God With Politics and Lost Their Way. From 1995 to 2003, she was Maryland's first woman lieutenant governor.

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