When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence for the United States, he proclaimed the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He did not guarantee happiness to the citizens, nor did he mean to hold happiness as one of the greatest values. It was not Happiness that was classed with and valued as much as Life and Liberty. Rather the “pursuit of happiness” was key. Modern psychological research provides a deeper understanding of what Jefferson intuited.
Jefferson lived a long, healthy life and died at age 83 on the Fourth of July, 1826, which was the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Clearly, American liberty was on his mind until the very end. Contrary to what most people think, it was not unusual for a successful American to live into his 80s, even way back in the 18th century. The average life expectancy was much lower, but that was because so many individuals died in infancy and childhood. Jefferson always stayed physically active and involved with his community, but he also had a special wisdom.
Mr. Jefferson had a mind-boggling number of successful careers and accomplishments, from farmer to architect to minister to governor to President. Of course there were many, many failures and defeats along the way, but nothing stopped his persistence. For example, he designed, built and then continually remodeled his mansion, Monticello. We all know how stressful house renovations can be. Is this puzzling?
He fought political battles for decades, as congressional delegate, governor, vice-president, secretary of state, president and more. Did he ever slow down and rest, having finally achieved happiness? No. In his 70s he founded (and designed) the University of Virginia. Today such a person might be disparaged as a workaholic.
Why wasn’t Jefferson stressed out and sick? After all, in addition to the huge challenges of his work life, his personal life was full of trials and tribulations. His wife died at age 33. Four of their six children died during childhood. His was often in debt, struggling with his finances. All these things are today recognized as major life stressors. Yet he wasn't depressed and he wasn't ill. Could it really be that Jefferson was happy and thriving, even without any trips to Disneyland, a Maserati, or a beach house with water skis? Certainly. He thrived because he knew that the pursuit of happiness is not the same as the accumulation of happiness.
Dozens of studies now confirm that accumulating great wealth, avoiding failure, and taking it easy are not the secrets to happiness and health. Jefferson succeeded and failed, loved and lost, but never stopped building, inventing, and learning. My own research work on the 8-decade Longevity Project confirms this. Those individuals who sought new challenges thrived, but those who were irresponsible or lazy tended to falter. Growing, developing, maturing are the twins of happiness.
“Strive to be happy” is what the pursuit of happiness really means. Not “be happy.” Be careful what you wish for. "Don't worry, Be happy" is rotten advice. It is all in the striving and doing.
If you are interested, The Longevity Project, which explains the long-term pathways to thriving, was published in paperback edition by Plume (see http://www.howardsfriedman.com/longevityproject/ ) and is also available on Kindle and Nook. The book also contains self-assessment quizzes to help you figure your current trajectory.
Copyright © 2014 Howard S. Friedman, all rights reserved.
Photo of 24¢ Declaration of Independence By Samcam61 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons