The cult of happiness

It’s written right into the Constitution: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Founders changed John Locke’s original purpose of government, which was the right to life, liberty, and property. Happiness was an unusual revision, but one suited to a society already steeped in a healthy morality. John Adams said as much in a letter to soldiers in 1798:

We had no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

The pursuit of happiness made sense in an age when people had a sense of their place in the world, when people had a sense of what their lives were for. People don’t have that today. Today we take eighteen-year-olds or twenty-two-year-olds and tell them, “As long as you do this and this, and memorize facts A, B, and C, and do everything I tell you, we’ll give you a cap and gown and some human capital in the job market.” We tell them little about what their lives are actually for. We tell them nothing about sacrifice, suffering, sacredness, or virtue–at most we give them a spiel about fighting through adversity in the hopes that it makes them happy. And to top it off we tell them that “Kindness is everything.”

But, as it turns out, after you’re really, really kind to everyone, and you’re really, really happy, you find that life still has no meaning.