I’ve been wanting to blog about this confused and superficial article about ‘wellbeing’ ever since I spotted it at the weekend. I’ll skip over the fact that it treats as new a set of ideas that have been part of public debate for at least a decade, or that it confuses the idea of ‘wellbeing’ with that of ‘happiness’. No, what really annoyed me is the big mistake it makes in its very first sentence.
“The declaration of American independence, drawing on a bright Enlightenment idea, declared happiness to be a human right.”
Did it? Really? Let’s see what the declaration of American independence actually says shall we.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
So that’s the ‘Right to Life’, the ‘Right to Liberty’, and the ‘Right to the pursuit of Happiness’.
Let’s be clear. That is not the ‘Right to Happiness’.
Do you notice those three qualifying words? They are important.
Imagine a society where happiness was considered to be a human right. One where people had the right to demand to be happy. How would such a society deliver this right? Laws would need to be changed to outlaw things that made people unhappy. Demands would be placed upon the state to deliver the happiness that so many people felt they were being denied. The state would have to respond by defining and quantifying happiness. In doing so, inevitably, an authorised version of what it means to be happy would be developed. Citizens would then be increasingly pressurised to conform to this official way to live a happy life. Society would move towards some perverse kind of totalitarianism where happiness is enforced. Which, of course, would end up making people unhappy.
The idea that happiness can be a human right is ridiculous. A right to happiness is simply unworkable. Life just isn’t like that. No society can prevent people feeling disappointment, sorrow, bereavement or disenchantment from time to time. Nor should it try to.
But a society where obstacles are placed in the way of people who wish to develop fulfilling lives, where social and economic structures prevent individuals from developing their full potential, in short, where people are not at liberty to pursue happiness is one equally to be avoided.
The founding fathers of the U.S. Constitution understood this point. They showed their hopes and ambitions for a better society when they included the word “happiness” in it’s text. But they showed their wisdom, and indeed their liberalism, when they also included those three qualifying words “the pursuit of”.
Any discussion of the role that happiness, or indeed the concept of wellbeing, should play in our society and our politics will only be useful if the difference between the right to something and the right to be free to pursue something is understood. Which is why liberals are uniquely placed to lead in this debate.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.