The drafters of the US Declaration of Independence were right to champion the "pursuit" of happiness. Painting by John Trumbull

No, you don’t have a right to happiness

We have allowed the idea that happiness is within everyone’s reach to lodge itself in the collective psyche. But as most philosophical schools will tell you, other things should come first
March 1, 2023

After life and liberty, the US Declaration of Independence identifies “the pursuit of Happiness” as an “unalienable Right”. No nation, however, has been foolish enough to assert the right to possess, rather than just pursue, happiness. Even Bhutan, whose constitution enshrines “Gross National Happiness”, pledges merely to “enhance” its people’s happiness and wellbeing.

There can be no right to happiness because, as philosopher Mary Warnock put it, “I do not think that it makes sense to say that you have a right unless someone has a duty to make sure you get what you claim.” Rights to life and liberty may be universal. Nations can only add rights to education, housing and so on when they become prosperous enough to deliver them; no state, rich or poor, can promise to deliver happiness.

Yet in wealthy countries, the idea that happiness is within everyone’s reach has worked its way into the collective psyche. It has come to be seen as a reasonable expectation, close enough to a natural right to be confused for one.

Consumer culture doesn’t help, bombarding us with promises of the perfect this, that and the other. But it is not just advertisers who tantalisingly dangle the promise of happiness before us. Academics write books on how ancient philosophies can bring us happiness, and even the Dalai Lama packages his teachings as recipes for contentment, as in his bestselling The Art of Happiness. Serious newspapers include articles about bulletproof hedonic boosters such as “forest bathing” and hygge. Little wonder that when happiness eludes us it can feel like a personal failure to possess what is rightfully ours.

Even if we know we have been sold an unrealistic ideal, that merely opens the door to a subtler sales pitch. There is now a whole genre centred on the idea that perfection is impossible, vulnerability essential and heartbreak inevitable. Accepting this is the route to a content, satisfied you. It has the pseudo-­profound whiff of the Yoda about it: “Only by accepting happiness is unattainable is happiness attained.”

We are caught between the promise of satisfaction and the constant feeling of dissatisfaction, with our more realistic selves trying in vain to keep our hopeful selves in check. There is no way out of this so long as our culture continues to valorise happiness, pressuring us always to be looking for means to achieve it.

When happiness eludes us it can feel like some kind of personal failure to possess what is rightfully ours

The very idea that happiness is the greatest good needs to be challenged. A cursory survey of global philosophies might suggest it is a universal ideal, but happiness as we understand it today has rarely been seen as the main goal of life. Rather, it is something we get when we achieve a more worthwhile end.

In Confucian philosophy, the highest good is harmony: social, familial and psychological. Although harmony boosts our happiness, happiness is more a welcome side effect than the primary objective. In the majority of traditional Indian philosophies, the ultimate goal is moksha: liberation from the cycle of rebirth. The happiness that comes from this is not like that experienced in ordinary life; it results in the dissolution of the individual ego as it returns to unity with Brahman, the universal self. Aristotle is often said to have considered happiness the highest good. In fact, the word he used was eudaimonia, better translated as “flourishing”. As for the hedonist ­Epicurus, his ideal of a life of pleasure was one of ataraxia: freedom from anxiety.

In the west today, however, happiness is often what people say they most want. The philosophical basis of this comes from utilitarianism, which promotes “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” and was founded in the 18th century by Jeremy Bentham before being developed by John Stuart Mill. Nietzsche ridiculed it, saying, “Mankind does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that.” But, today, utilitarianism in its “hedonic” form has become the default secular mode of moral and political thinking across the western world.

Increasingly, governments are seen as having an obligation to promote happiness, even if citizens don’t have a right to demand it. In this context, since 2012, the Office for National Statistics has been collecting data on subjectively reported happiness, life satisfaction, the feeling that the things done in life are worthwhile, and anxiety. The results suggest that, even though these aren’t the same things, they tend to rise and fall together. The most plausible explanation is that happiness is the result of a life that is high in satisfaction and meaning, and low in anxiety. If so, perhaps we should not make the pursuit of happiness our primary goal, but rather seek the things we most value and enjoy whatever happiness follows. Then we would be less seduced by the promises of happiness hacks and, paradoxically, would be much happier as a result.