Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Essays

The Unhappiness of Happiness

William M. Chace

Hoarding (detail) by Eugenia Loli, courtesy of the artist.

As La Rochefoucauld said, “There is something in the misfortunes of our friends that does not displease us.”

In 1763, young Thomas Jefferson wrote a College of William and Mary classmate about being rejected by a woman on whom he had set his hopes: “Perfect happiness, I believe, was never intended by the Deity to be the lot of one of his creatures in this world; but that he has very much put in our power the nearness of our approaches to it, is what I have steadfastly believed.”1 That happiness was not guaranteed, but could be sought, was part of Jefferson’s credo, not only when he was a romantically inclined youth but when he was a middle-aged man who, having read John Locke (“life, liberty, and estate”), envisioned the nation whose principles he was helping to form. Thus, in 1776 he could write, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

That sentence in the Declaration of Independence, particularly the word “pursuit,” fixes happiness near the center of this nation’s self-understanding. While he didn’t say that our happiness is guaranteed—the hopeful Jefferson was not the foolish Jefferson—his words imply that happiness is part of our patrimony. Without it, we would be less than we can or must be; with it, we confirm ourselves as citizens of the Republic.

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