Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Aristotle in America

Nicole B- Period 1

“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”[i]

On July 4th, 1776, the Second Continental Congress published the Declaration of Independence, taking the first step on the road to independence from Great Britain.  For the first time, the Founding Fathers took ideas that had been brewing in the thirteen colonies – ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – and made them concrete by including them in the new nation’s first major document.  Over the next 239 years, the American concept of happiness has continued to define itself.  Historically, Americans have derived happiness from its pursuit, the idea of climbing, of expanding, of reaching new horizons and doing the next big thing, an idea that corresponds with Aristotle’s teachings on Ethics and happiness.  To achieve happiness in today’s post-industrial world, Americans must move back to their historical source of happiness, finding joy by living, by doing, by pursuing.

The American view of happiness began to develop before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock.  Unsatisfied with the religious atmosphere in England, the Pilgrims, along with the several religious groups that followed, set sail for a new continent in search of religious freedom.  More generally, they set sail in search of happiness.  The same holds true for all immigrants, people who gave up life as they knew it and set off in search of something new.  As Europeans continued to leave their home continent and travel to America, their shared understanding of happiness by pursuit began to take root.  However, the colonists soon found themselves unhappy due to conflict and discord with the British government, which they felt restricted their freedom to pursue happiness.  Finally, the thirteen colonies had had enough, and they published the Declaration of Independence, putting the American notion of finding happiness onto paper, vowing to establish a government that would protect its citizens’ right to seek happiness in whichever way they see fit.

As the new nation expanded and developed, its concept of happiness followed suit.  Almost immediately after its birth, the US began to grow, acquiring vast new territories, lands filled with promise.  As a result, the force that drove immigrants to colonize America nearly 200 years ago began to emerge once more.  As settlers piled into wagons and embarked on journeys across the American frontier, a culture of expansion began to take root.  The frontier became an integral part of American culture and society.  Manifest Destiny, the idea that Americans were, by their nature, destined to expand across the continent, serves as a telling example of Americans’ thirst for expansion.  As they spread across the plains, over the mountains, and to the ocean, Americans brought this idea of happiness with them.  However, the frontier would not last forever.  Eventually, Manifest Destiny was completed and the domestic frontier ceased to exist, leaving Americans in a new situation.  Their culture, their understanding of happiness, was based firmly on the idea of expanding into a frontier that no longer existed.  As a result, Americans, looking to achieve some happiness through expansion and pursuit, set out in search of a new frontier, diving headfirst into the period of American Imperialism.

American Imperialism, the economic, military, and cultural influence of the US on foreign soil, exemplifies America’s historical belief in finding happiness through flourishing expansion.  At the close of the 19th century, with Manifest Destiny complete and American culture demanding a new frontier, the US began to turn its interests overseas.  At the conclusion of a brief war with Spain, the Treaty of Paris ceded Cuba, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the US; in addition, the United States gained control of the Philippines, Hawaii, and Alaska while also establishing a presence in China by participating in putting down the Boxer Rebellion.  Since then, America has had a continued presence overseas, more so than any other country to date.  Even after rising from the ashes of WWII as a dominant world power, the US continued its involvement overseas, spending time in Korea and Vietnam, and more recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan.  This unwavering involvement in foreign affairs, spanning nearly all of the nation’s history, tells that American happiness does not come from “savoring the moment,” but from pushing earnestly into what is new and exciting.

The American understanding of happiness is closely related to that of Aristotle.  Throughout its history, the US developed a culture that derives happiness by doing what is new, by earnestly seeking what is next.  Americans were never satisfied with the status quo.  They expanded rapidly until they reached an ocean, then they crossed that ocean, seeking involvement and influence in the affairs of foreign countries.  They did all of this in search of happiness, which, according to Aristotle, is the ultimate goal of any action performed by anybody.  In addition, Aristotle’s definition of happiness matches that of America.  The word used by Aristotle was eudaimonia, which, while translating most directly to the English word happiness, also carries connotations of success, fulfillment, and flourishing growth.[ii]  These hidden connotations, lost to the inaccuracy of translation, match the American understanding of happiness as being derived from expansion and progress.  Thus, according to Aristotle, Americans have historically sought happiness from the right sources: not from life itself, but from living, from flourishing, from finding the next thing.  However, at times throughout history and in recent decades, Americans have become notoriously unhappy, a problem arising out of a departure from America’s historical source of happiness.

At times throughout history, and in recent years due to barriers such as consumption and comparison with others, Americans have moved away from seeking happiness by pursuit.  During the Civil War, one of the grimmest periods of national history, Americans took a step back from their rapid expansion to deal with the issue of slavery.  Although nearly all civilized nations had abolished slavery long ago, the American south refused to let go, clinging desperately to the past, refusing to move on to the next frontier.  The result was bloodshed.  In time, Americans returned to their habit of seeking happiness through pursuit; however, recently, they have become unhappy again.  A study by the National Science Foundation revealed that, since 1972, only about a third of Americans describe themselves as “very happy,” and that, since 2004, the number of Americans who describe themselves as optimists has plummeted from 79% to 50%.[iii]  One possible explanation for this drop is a shift to seeking happiness through consumption, seeking happiness which derives from the end rather than the means, from relaxing in a treehouse rather than building it.  According to Aristotle, pleasures such as these cannot bring true happiness.  Another explanation is that, in the age of celebrities, paparazzi, and reality television, people have begun to compare themselves with those far more popular, rich, and powerful.  Social media also causes problems.  People compare their whole lives – the highs and the lows – with the highlight reels of their peers, displayed proudly on Facebook Timelines and Instagram profiles.  As a result, their dreams and aspirations become so far-fetched that they cannot be achieved by pursuit, leading to failure in the search for happiness.

Americans will not remain unhappy forever.  Eventually, they will realize what Aristotle said thousands of years ago: happiness results not from life itself, but from living.  If a man in the 1800s can find happiness by moving his family across the American plains in search of a better life, then a high school graduate in 2015 can find it by pursuing education, following their interests, and striving for growth and success.

[i] Jefferson, Thomas. “The Declaration of Independence.” Historic American Documents. 1776, Accessed April 29, 2015.

[ii] Gallager, Eric. “Aristotle’s Definition of Eudaimonia.” Aristotle’s Definition of Eudaimonia. November 24, 2010. Accessed April 29, 2015.

[iii] Kluger, Jeffrey. “The Happiness of Pursuit.” Time. July 8, 2013. Accessed April 29, 2015.

Picture Heading Citation 

Web Weaver. Accessed May 1, 2015. http://www.webweaver.nu/clipart/img/misc/usa/usa-map-flag.png.

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