The Pursuit of Happiness

Most Americans know that the “right to happiness” was mentioned in a big way in the Declaration of Independence. Very few Americans, including me, really understand what that phrase meant at that time.

Americans’ definitions of happiness range all over the map. Winning the lottery, good humor, no money worries, no stress, success, balance in life, great kids, a loving marriage, lots of friends, job satisfaction, feeling good most of the time etc, etc.

If someone with a straight face were to tell you it really was none of those things as Jefferson wrote those words, I imagine you would be as non-pulsed as I was. Yet when I did learn what it meant, I immediately realized that we have all had it quite wrong for a long time AND if we could learn to get it right we might all be better off.

A recent new issue of a 14 volume famous work of the English diarist Samuel Pepys contains a glossary of words which we think we know well, but which had quite different meanings back then in the late 1700s. For example, ‘doubt’ back then really meant ‘worry’: as in “I doubt that he will come here” really meant “I worry that he will come here.” That surely is quite a difference which could lead to a lot of confusion.

The root stem of happiness was ‘happenstance’–chance, luck fortune. Pepys opined in his diaries that Admiral William Penn [the father] was an “unhappy” sailor commenting that he ran aground a lot, lost his anchors and tore his sails–to fail, to try again, to fail, to try again, always taking risks but finally succeeding.

So the meaning of happiness to Pepys and Jefferson meant something much more like the right and freedom to take chances in life and take risks on the many layered roads to success, to try to be more than one may have been born to be.

In fact, Jefferson did speak of the pursuit of happiness. Evidently at that time happiness really meant freedom to pursue risks. That is what constituted happiness; not necessarily the success that might follow, but the freedom to take risks to succeed.

I learned this when a journalist friend in DC, Jim Srodes, wrote to comment on my piece about the Omaha Bomber (Warren Buffett) and concluded that Buffett’s “wisdom” about no umpire to call balls and strikes which allowed the batter to simply wait for a perfect pitch, was quite misleading in investment terms.

He also pointed out that Ben Franklin, about whom he recently wrote a grand biography, would have thought that waiting for the perfect pitch was a losing strategy and wondered what Buffett might think today.

Srodes makes a very good point. And, investors should bear his wisdom in mind.

The larger point, moreover, is that if more Americans, including all our elected representatives, could learn and understand the original intent of the meaning of happiness as the freedom to take risks and read that into our political lives, we might all be more inclined to pull up our socks to make the effort and take the risks that can lead to real happiness for everyone everywhere.


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