Blast from the Past: Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness. Part 3, The Pursuit of Happiness

The day before yesterday I addressed the right to life, yesterday the right to Liberty.  Today I round out the trifecta with the right to The Pursuit of Happiness.

You may notice a trend here.  Each of these gets more abstract, and a bit more involved, than the one before.  Some consider this one the most obvious of the three.  After all, no matter what anyone else does you can always try to be happy.  After all, it doesn’t say a right to be happy, just to “pursue” it.

But is that all that “The Pursuit of Happiness” means?  After all, Thomas Jefferson was well educated and many consider him one of the most intelligent men of his day.  Would he include something so trite in his statement of the philosophical underpinnings of why the US was declaring independence?  Would the other intelligent and highly educated men have left it there if it were something so basic that, well, even a prisoner in chains can try to be happy, can “pursue happiness” if that’s all it means.

I don’t think it can be that trite.

To pursue happiness is to seek something beyond mere survival.  Liberty is a large part of it.  One must have the freedom to do the things that one believes will lead to happiness.  But more than that is required.  If one has to spend every moment, every ounce of effort, every gram of resources in merely staying alive one has nothing left to pursue happiness.

So, in order to pursue happiness, certain needs must first be met.  One must have something left after the struggle for survival.  It need not be much.  Consider, for instance, if the world economy utterly collapsed.  Infrastructure broke down.  Technology was wrecked.  After this catastrophe, imagine you are one of the few survivors left with nothing with which to work.  You’re all alone.  Your family (if you have one) is gone.  It’s just you, trying to survive.

That would be a pretty harsh reality.  Would it be possible to pursue happiness in this new world?

Well, at first you’d struggle just to survive. (Some people, no doubt, would just give up and die, but you’re not one of those, are you?)  You’d have to find or build shelter, find water, find food.  A piece of the roof of that collapsed house is leaning against a charred piece of wall.  It’s not much, but it will keep the rain and snow off and with a fire by the opening you can keep it warm enough not to freeze in the cold.  There’s a retention pond not too far away.  It’s not much.  The water is uncomfortably dirty, but it’s water and it keeps away dying of thirst.  Maybe in the rubble of that library you find some books on edible plants and some old books on how to build fish traps and snares.

You survive.  And before long at all you find that taking care of the basics of survival doesn’t take up all your time and effort.  You have time to do other things.  Maybe you find some books among the rubble to read for the sheer pleasure of reading.  Or maybe you fiddle around with different ways of making sounds and create some form of musical instrument and play for your own entertainment.  Or perhaps its pictures or sculpture that catches your fancy.  Or maybe it’s simply decorating the tools you make to help you in your survival.  You don’t need to carve those designs into the axe handle, but they please you.  In any case, you can do more that mere survival.  You can do things to improve your lot on an emotional level, to pursue happiness, rather than just for mere physical survival.

And when you’re confident you have the means to survive, you leave the little piece of roof that sheltered you and set out to find others.  Perhaps you do find them.  Now you have companionship.  And while the pain of your lost family never goes completely away (it never does), it recedes to bittersweet memory and you can build a new family.

So even in this horribly apocalyptic world it’s possible to meaningfully pursue happiness.  Mind you, one could fail anywhere along that chain.  But the right isn’t to obtain happiness, just to pursue it.  And as soon as you have the possibility of some freedom of action and thought beyond that required for mere survival, it becomes possible to seek more.

Now let’s change the scenario a bit.  Instead of being alone, let’s bring some other people into the picture.  But these other people aren’t nice people who want to be friends.  They’re roving bands of raiders who will kill you over the rabbit you managed to trap and the wild onions you dug up for dinner.   Now, instead of just seeing to the task of survival you have to constantly be looking to your back trail.  You have to make sure your camp is hidden.  Small fires made with only bone dry wood because smoke can attract raiders.  That means a cold camp when it’s wet.  That music you would otherwise be making?  Can’t do that if it will pinpoint you to raiders.  And so on.

Notice how that picture changed?  Instead of being able to spend the necessary time to survival and spending the rest on whatever you will, whatever might bring you a modicum of happiness, all of your time is now taken up.  When not hunting/trapping/fishing/gathering you’re hiding.  Finding other people?  Can you trust them not to be raiders?  And when you are pursuing mere survival you have to worry about what, or rather who, you will find around the next bend of the trail or over the next ridge.  Gone is the time spent on other activities.

And that is the greatest threat to the right to “Pursuit of Happiness”, other people–people of ill will.  Nature may be harsh, often dangerous, but there’s no malice in it.  But bring in people with actual malice and the picture changes.

What is needed is a modicum of order, enough order to keep the people of ill will “pruned back” sufficiently so that everyone else isn’t having to spend every moment looking over their shoulder wondering, and enough stability that you can step back from the mere task of survival and do something else.

“And to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

So there we have it, the reason for government.  It is to act against the use of force whereby one person (or group of persons) infringes on the right to life and liberty of another, and to provide that minimum of order and stability required to allow each individual to pursue happiness as that individual sees fit.  Enough order.  Enough stability.  Enough so that the people of ill will who mean you harm are kept in check, but not so much at the government itself becomes a threat to Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.  To go beyond that is itself an infringement on the rights held by the people.

And if you appreciated the above post, you might enjoy my novel Survival Test, where a group of people must face a challenge to survive and go beyond mere survival to prosper


A series of diplomatic crises precipitate a limited nuclear war on Earth. Missile defenses block access to space. Nothing goes up and nothing comes down.

The people of the various space stations, the moon base, and a space colony whose construction had just begun must find a way to survive until the war is over.

The ultimate survival test.

As always, click the cover image to get the book.

8 thoughts on “Blast from the Past: Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness. Part 3, The Pursuit of Happiness”

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