What the Declaration of Independence really means by 'pursuit of happiness'

By Laura Douglas-Brown | Emory Report | June 28, 2016

Religion professor Brent Strawn advocates for a "thick" understanding of happiness that includes social concerns and even encompasses sorrow.

Editor's note: Since this interview was originally published on June 30, 2014, it has consistently ranked among the most read articles in the Emory News Center. As the Fourth of July holiday again approaches, Emory Report spoke with Professor Brent Strawn about why a "thick" understanding of "the pursuit of happiness" may be even more important in our current political climate. His additional answers appear at the end of the interview.

More than just fireworks and cookouts, the Fourth of July offers an opportunity to reflect on how our founders envisioned our new nation — including the Declaration of Independence's oft-quoted "unalienable right" to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

But our contemporary understanding of "pursuit of happiness" is a thinner, less meaningful shadow of what the Declaration's authors intended, according to Brent Strawn, who teaches religion and theology in Emory's Candler School of Theology and Graduate Division of Religion.

"It may be that the American Dream, if that is parsed as lots of money and the like, isn't a sufficient definition of the good life or true happiness. It may, in fact, be detrimental," notes Strawn, editor of "The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us About the Good Life." (Oxford University Press, 2012)

As Independence Day nears, Strawn discussed what "pursuit of happiness" is commonly thought to mean today, what our founders meant, and how a "thick" understanding of happiness can be a better guide for both individuals and nations.

The Declaration of Independence guarantees the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." What do you think the phrase "pursuit of happiness" means to most people who hear it today?
Read more at http://news.emory.edu/stories/2014/06/er_pursuit_of_happiness/campus.html


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