Pursuit of Happiness

As we watch the news in our celebrity- choked culture, it’s easy to feel that the grand experiment envisioned by our Founding Alchemists—turning a fizzy mix of freedom and responsibility into societal gold—has spun wildly out of control. The promise of unlimited opportunity has given way to rampant narcissism and misplaced perfectionism (and the disappointed self-loathing that inevitably follows the search for a flawless self).

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The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

From the beginning, America has been dedicated to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But the signers of the Declaration of Independence assumed that some truths did not have to be proved—that some truths were, to borrow a phrase, self-evident. It was self-evident, for example, that the happiness to be pursued was not the blissed-out buzz induced by drugs or shopping sprees. It was the happiness of the Book of Proverbs: “Happy is he that has mercy on the poor.” It was the happiness that comes from feeling good by doing good.

Happiness today has been reduced to instant gratification. We search for “happy hours” that leave us stumbling through life; we devour “Happy Meals” that barely nourish the body; we believe the ads that tell us that there is a pill for every ill, and that happiness is just a tablet away.

But there is good news. All around the country, individuals are choosing to redefine the pursuit of happiness in ways much closer to the original American idea. More young people are volunteering than ever before, and more and more people, young and old, are including service to others in their busy lives. There are, of course, days when the travails of Britney, Lindsay, and Paris dominate the news, but the American idea, embedded deep in our cultural DNA, is inspiring us to pursue a much less shallow happiness.

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