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The pursuit of happiness

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are the examples of inalienable rights that are named in the US Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

It’s a phrase that’s memorized by Americans, and which sometimes catches the attention as well of non-Americans. That same phrase is found in the Vietnamese constitution—something which I learned only in Vietnam some years back, and it surprised me because of the bitter Vietnam War fought against the United States. I later learned that Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese revolutionary leader, was, like other Asian nationalists including Filipinos, an admirer of the United States, and so the Vietnamese constitution recognizes those same three rights.

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I’ve always liked the phrase, but could never understand how the right to pursue happiness could be concretely applied or defended, until a few years ago when I was preparing a column on the historic Loving v. Virginia decision of the US Supreme Court.

Loving was the surname of the interracial couple that had dared to defy antimiscegenation laws in Virginia. (Miscegenation actually meant “mismating,” referring to undesirable mating among animals.)

The Lovings knew they could not marry in Virginia, so they had their wedding in Washington then returned to Virginia to live. Acting on a tip, police raided their home and arrested them for having violated Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. They were sentenced to a year in prison, but they appealed their case.  The Supreme Court of Virginia upheld the conviction, so they brought the case to the US Supreme Court, with the assistance of the US attorney general, Robert Kennedy.

The resulting US Supreme Court decision finally overturned the remaining antimiscegenation laws in 16 states.  The Supreme Court argued that these laws violated the right to pursue happiness.

That decision actually set a precedent cited, from 2013 onward, on another related controversy: same-sex marriages.

Don’t you think it’s interesting how the right to marry is linked to the right to pursue happiness?

There’s been a lot of discussion in the last 10 years, almost an obsession, about happiness, from suggestions to follow Bhutan’s example of setting up a Gross Happiness Index for nations, to all kinds of courses, in and out of school, on how to be happy. It’s a reflection of the times, this unrelenting search for happiness in what seems to be an unhappy world, or unhappy times.

There’s a tendency as well to interpret this pursuit of happiness as hedonistic, what in Filipino we would call “pa-happy happy,” with images of alcohol and drugs and debauchery.

To some extent, I can imagine people thinking of Americans as hedonistic because of this right to pursue happiness.

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So I was surprised to read an article by Adriana Cavarero, an Italian philosopher, in the New York Times pointing out that “happiness” had another meaning in the 18th century, a meaning used by the framers of the American Declaration of Independence.

Cavarero refers to political scientist Hannah Arendt’s works on the American Revolution and what she calls “public happiness.” She contrasts this public happiness, which is in the “inner realm into which men escape at will from the pressure of the world,” from a “public space or marketplace … an area where freedom appears and becomes visible to all.”

For those involved in the American Revolution, this happiness came from an “experience of being free,” including an “ability to start something new.” Arendt said this public happiness was to be repeated in many social movements; I thought, too, of our Edsa revolt—alas, how distant it seems now in history.

US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy did try to remind Americans, in a lecture in 2005, that the pursuit of happiness was not self-gratification, but was about what an individual could contribute to society.

There is, in fact, this sense of civics in many American institutions, from a strong sense of volunteerism to town halls (public fora organized at local government levels) to the many marches and rallies they have for all kinds of causes. Come to think of it, while Filipinos associate rallies with radicalism and communists, we actually learned to organize such mass actions from the Americans.

There’s convergence in this notion of public happiness with philosophies and religions that deal with the search for and pursuit of happiness, which should make us recognize that we seem to become unhappier during a time when even the poor find their homes overflowing with goods.

Enshrining the pursuit of public happiness in a national declaration should rank as one of the most important contributions of the United States to humanity.

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TAGS: happiness, July 4, opinion, Philippines, US Declaration of Independence
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