I have come in recent days to question the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson’s 231-year-old sentence that we are celebrating today:
“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.”
While I am certainly grateful for all the blessings this sentence has laid upon us, it is the last word of the sentence that I have been pondering. Indeed, the phrase “pursuit of Happiness” seems to be the only part of the sentence that is uniquely Jeffersonian; the rest of it comes borrowed from other famous Enlightment philosophies, particularly those of John Locke.
Locke wrote about “Life, Liberty and Estate”. Adam Smith followed Locke up with a discussion of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Property.” Scholars are not quite sure why Jefferson changed it from “Property”, a basic legal concept, to “Happiness”, a basic human emotion, but the effect is huge. By placing an emotion into the sentence, the sentence comes alive. It brings something tangible, something that is experienced by every human being, into a sentence that is otherwise highly abstract.
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My third daughter was born a week ago today with an excess of fluid collected in her lungs. She spent the first two days of her life in a neonatal intensive care unit. As I sat by her side in the hospital, watching her with breathing tubes in her nostrils, an IV in her arm, and a gazillion wires coming from various places on her body to monitor this and that, I experienced many strong and profound emotions. I’m pretty sure none of them would be labeled “Happiness”.
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Human beings have a large set of emotions they experience. These days, we simply take it as self-evident that Happiness is the ultimate emotion, the one we ought to pursue above all others. We spend a lot of time and energy obsessing about how to be happy, but is there truly a hierarchy of emotions, with happiness at the top? Or is this just an idea that Jefferson planted in our heads 231 years ago, and has grown so large today that we cannot get around it?
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Happiness is a positive, but selfish emotion. It’s about me, how well things are going for me. I experienced positive emotions while sitting in the hospital, but I wouldn’t call those emotions “Happiness” because they had nothing to do with me at all. When I think about how I felt sitting in the neonatal ICU, holding this small child with all the tubes and wires sticking out of her, the one word that comes to mind is tenderness.
Tenderness is a social emotion, not a selfish one. It’s about caring for someone else, about wanting to attend to another person’s well-being, above and beyond your own. It’s both positive and negative at once: positive in that you want to make this other person grow and thrive and flourish, and negative in that you recognize how delicate and fragile life can be. The feeling is deeper, and more profound, than any shallow happiness can ever be.
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My daughter is home now, healthy and growing. I got some good sleep last night, my first good rest in a long time. It is the happiest I’ve felt in weeks. But how I feel doesn’t really matter.
Look up “happiness research” on the web, and you get all sorts of information about how human beings can, do, and ought to behave. Happiness researchers will provide statistical evidence that having additional children won’t make you any happier.
Humbug. I think that happiness researchers, like happiness itself, are somewhat besides the point. Look up “tenderness research“, and all you get are articles about beef. A lot of people, I think, are barking up the wrong cow.
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Humans are social beings, with social emotions, and we pursue our social connections–creating families, making friends, joining political parties, attending churches, volunteering, becoming sports fans–for reasons that go beyond our own personal happiness.
Meanwhile, I can’t help but wonder: what would our world be like today, if Jefferson had written that among our unalienable rights were “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Tenderness”?