Pursuit of whose happiness?

Assuming that we all have been fully sated with patriotic helpings of hot dogs, and have witnessed enough bombs bursting in air to please a member of the famed Zambelli fireworks company, we can take a moment in this post-Fourth of July lull to consider further the Declaration of Independence.

What is remarkable about Thomas Jefferson’s soaring words _ other than sounding the death knell of cricket as the national pastime _ is his listing of the pursuit of happiness among the certain unalienable rights such as life and liberty.

As important as they are, life and liberty are an understandable right. But the pursuit of happiness is a more radical concept.

It is something that never occurred to the people of other countries to enshrine in their national documents _ they were too busy tending turnips, wearing constricting national costumes, attempting too many vowel sounds, surviving harsh winters or simply keeping wild animals such as wolves and wombats at bay.

It’s not that these hard-pressed foreigners did not appreciate happiness _ escaping from the clutches of a wild wombat is an exhilarating experience to be savored. It’s just that they have felt that there were less frivolous rights to be secured, such as the right to play soccer.

It took Jefferson’s special genius to recognize that America was the place where all things were possible. Living in a land of abundant natural resources, Americans were freed to pursue happiness as an end in itself. Or else they could eat all those natural resources and become fat and happy _ the choice was theirs.

Of course, Jefferson did not say that we had a right to happiness. You can imagine all the lawsuits that might ensue if happiness were an actual right. Whiners everywhere would be empowered. In my business, every newsroom in the country would be bringing suit against their editors. (Take that for cutting our stories and changing our commas.)

Even in less peevish and disgruntled occupations, recognition of happiness as a right would lead only to a collective stamping of feet, a general pouting and a wail of: “We’re not happy! We’re not happy!”

No, what Jefferson thought of as a right was the pursuit of happiness. It is all in the chase, you see.

As one who has happily pursued happiness all his life, I thought I could offer a few tips today to those gloomy readers who may have strayed into reading this column and are puzzled by obvious signs of merriment.

The truth is that I was happy from a very early age. As I sat grinning in my playpen, I imagine my parents would ask each other anxiously: “Why isn’t that baby crying?” As I grew up, with the silly smile still stuck on my face, my teachers were naturally revolted but there was little they could do. Once a person has had a happy childhood, he or she gets into the habit of the thing.

So you young parents who dutifully read “Goodnight Moon” to your children at bedtime and wonder what good it could possibly be doing, be assured that you are making the little nippers happy _ and that will last a lifetime. One day, years hence, they will sit in a high-level corporate meeting, and the thought will come to them, “Goodnight moon! Goodnight spoon!” and they will feel inexplicably cheerful.

Of course, not everybody has the luck to have good parents, but there are some things we can all do to pursue happiness with reasonable success. It is advisable to have a sense of humor, because much that goes on in our national life is a grand joke.

When it comes to politics, it is best to remember that if you listen to talk radio too much, you will not exude inner peace. Would Jesus have listened to talk radio? I think not. If it had existed back then, the hosts would have thought crucifixion quite reasonable.

I mention this because religion can be a great source of happiness. Although I cannot instruct you in the right one to choose, faith being such a personal matter, I would think as a general rule that those denominations that believe beer and dogs exist in heaven are your best bet.

Ultimately, it up to you to define your own happiness in America. You may pursue happiness as an Elvis personator or go to Star Trek conventions dressed as a Klingon. For this is America, independent of the old thinking and rejoicing in its (unofficial) national motto: “Is this a great country or what?”

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com)