“When [Adams] and others wrote in the Declaration of Independence about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ what they meant by ‘happiness’ wasn’t longer vacations or more material goods. They were talking about the enlargement of the human experience through the life of the mind and the life of the spirit.” David McCullough*
When the Declaration of Independence was written, happiness did not mean what it often means today – a subjective emotional state associated with a hedonistic and selfish pursuit of personal pleasure.
Etymologists have traced the word “happiness” to the Old Norse language where it originally meant “luck” or “chance,” with Old English adopting and developing it to mean “success” “good” or “contentment.”
In 1725, it acquired a more philosophical or political flavor when Francis Hutcheson wrote about happiness in An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue:
That action is best which accomplishes the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers; and that worst, which in like manner occasions misery.
That connection between civic responsibility and happiness was at the forefront of 18th century political thought and was what the founding fathers had in mind in 1776 when they wrote of our right to pursue happiness.
In his 2005 lecture at the National Conference on Citizenship, US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said that for the founding fathers, “Happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.”
In other words, the pursuit of happiness was more about giving to society than self-gratification. That also jives with the fact that the word “pursuit” was then most commonly associated with a person’s work or calling. You “pursued” your vocation.
Putting this together we can say that, for the founders, to pursue happiness was to serve one’s community in one’s calling, one’s daily work.
“He who despises his neighbor sins;
But he who has mercy on the poor, happy is he.”