The pursuit of happiness

All eyes are currently on the USA. Many there now acknowledge that rights to pursue life and liberty, as promised in the assertions of the Declaration of Independence, vary unfairly depending on the colour of an individual’s skin.

History echoes. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr made his ‘I have a dream’ speech and spoke of the Declaration of Independence as a promissory note written to every future US citizen. “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” Perhaps this failure to deliver on those fine words is not surprising when the nation’s founding documents were written by slave-owners who asserted that all men are created equal without any apparent sense of irony.

The lack of equality, the lack of fairness, currently is clear. Research shows that “In 99% of neighborhoods in the United States, black boys earn less in adulthood than white boys who grow up in families with comparable income.” As reported by the New York Times, overall, 46% of poor black boys will remain poor as adults, while the same is true of 32% of poor white boys. Poverty should not be a heritable condition and should not depend on arbitrary factors, especially not in a nation whose self perception is that every individual has the chance to prosper. It does not fulfil the American Dream that unfairness infects that society, and merit is not the determinant of success (and too many over-believe in the power of merit: see Meritocracy’s Unfair). 

As well as the questions about the rights to life and liberty, the third of the ‘self-evident’ rights — to the pursuit of happiness — seems very much in doubt. The USA is not happy. According to the Hedonometer, these are the world’s unhappiest days in the sad long decade since the financial crisis, with the protests against police violence marking the single saddest day:


While the Hedonometer attributes this to the world as a whole, the data is mostly a function of the US experience. The Hedonometer uses the Twitter Decahose feed, a 10% random sample of the 500 million daily tweets worldwide, and selects those tweets deemed to be in English for its analysis. It then assesses the degree of happiness of the 200 million individual words that those tweets include. Since 21% of Twitter users are from the USA, and they will form a much greater percentage of those tweeting in English (Japan and Russia being the second and third largest sources of Twitter users), it is fairer to say that these are the US’s unhappiest days (the dominance by US sentiment is amply demonstrated by the double happiness spike towards the end of each year, representing Thanksgiving and Christmas). 

While the recent plummet is striking, perhaps most notable from this chart is what appears to be an overall downwards trajectory. People in the US in 2019 were consistently less happy than they were a decade previously, at the height of the financial crisis; that in spite of consistent GDP growth in 2019 and a dramatic recession in 2009. It is clear that economic success and GDP growth do not equate to happiness, and clear that the pursuit of happiness is failing.

It seems that the USA may unhappily have been aiming for the wrong things. Perhaps it is another case of the errors that are introduced by managing to what is easily measured.

For just as President Trump evidences his foolishness by continuing to equate stock market performance with the performance of the economy as a whole — it would be impossible for any truly successful businessperson to mistake the one for the other — it is foolish to equate GDP growth with general success, and so with happiness. Yet that is what the US, and much of the world, continues to do.

The founding fathers, for all their evident hypocrisies, were wiser. Jefferson’s choice of “the pursuit of happiness” for the rhetorical third arm of the self-evident rights marked a deliberate rejection of the more common use of “property” as the right sitting alongside life and liberty. This focus on property was based in the work of John Locke, who variously talked about life, liberty and ‘estate’ or ‘possession of material things’. While scholars debate Jefferson’s thinking in this respect, it is clear that he abandoned a narrow focus on material things and invited a broader look to a richer understanding of life satisfaction. Human flourishing is not just a function of property and wealth; and fairness in society is a necessary element of flourishing human communities, so that happiness is shared across society and is not enjoyed only by those who are most financially successful.

The failings of GDP have been broadly articulated. For example, I very much enjoyed Kate Raworth’s thoughtful and beguiling account in Doughnut Economics. As she notes, this harks back to the origins of economics itself. Aristotle distinguished economics, effective household management, from chrematistics, the art of acquiring wealth. The fixation on GDP growth as the measure of success feels more like chrematistics. 

Some countries have made an attempt to think more broadly about the purpose of government and of economics. The country most explicitly trying to break this fixation is tiny Himalayan kingdom Bhutan, which ignores GDP altogether and aims to deliver instead Gross National Happiness. While some are cynical about the happiness project, and indeed the genuine happiness of the nation’s people as a whole, the 33 measures under 9 domains that it uses to calculate the GNH score give an indication of the breadth of interests that need to be considered in a full understanding of what a true pursuit of happiness might entail:

  • living standards 
  • health
  • education
  • good governance 
  • ecological diversity and resilience 
  • time use [a sense of work-life balance]
  • psychological wellbeing [quality of life and life satisfaction]
  • cultural diversity and resilience 
  • community vitality

I share concerns about an attempt to put a number on happiness, but at least the Bhutan approach feels more coherent than the wreckage left in the UK of former prime minister David Cameron’s short-term fixation on wellbeing rather than just hard economic numbers. The Office for National Statistics is still attempting to collate and report on this, on a basis that amounts to little more than calls to a random sample of the population asking how they feel.

The interesting thing is how much is needed fully to deliver on happiness, and how little of that is currently represented in what is counted as economic life, and in GDP. Indeed much of it, particularly the ecological, runs expressly counter to how GDP is calculated. And the prominence of health in the calculation feels particularly apposite in current circumstances.

If the US truly is to think about how to deliver on its promissory note of the pursuit of happiness, it will need to rethink things fundamentally. Part of that will be to treat all of its citizens fairly, but a large part is to develop a very different consideration of what success looks like. Building and favouring resilient and vital communities will prove a part of that.

As history echoes down the years it is worth reflecting on Robert Kennedy’s words at the University of Kansas in the first days of his presidential run in 1968 (three short months before his sad assassination, the anniversary of which was just a couple of days ago): 

“Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.”

Bobby railed at the oddness of the calculation of GNP, that it includes as positives pollution and environmental destruction, it counts additional home security measures and building more gaols, it counts military spending and the purchases of criminals’ weapons, while ignoring health, quality of life and joy: “it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

All eyes are on the US. Many are wondering if they should continue to respect the country, whether the nation should retain its pride in itself. Fairness is a necessary step. But perhaps if it paid out on that promissory note to all its citizens, particularly with regard to the right to the pursuit of happiness in all the richness and depth that the phrase implies, there might be a reason for real pride.

Jefferson, and his fine words

See also: The pursuit of happiness II


I have a dream, Martin Luther King Jr, 1963

Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: An Intergenerational Perspective, Chetty, Hendren, Jones, Porter, Quarterly Journal of Economics, March 2018

As reported in Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys, New York Times, March 2018


Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth, Random House 2017

Bhutan Gross National Happiness

Office for National Statistics Wellbeing data