America’s founders believed that God endowed us with “certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”
Let’s focus on the third unalienable right in that list: the pursuit of happiness. What is “happiness” and what can government do to protect our pursuit of it?
Certainly, each individual defines “happiness” a little differently, but research shows that some specific things tend to be a source of happiness for most people.
For example, Lisa Farino of MSN Health & Fitness recently highlighted “a list of eight factors that influence rates of happiness and depression.” First on the list is marriage. The article cites research suggesting that “43 percent of married women and men reported being ‘very happy,’ while only 24 percent of unmarried men and women said the same.”
Also on the list was religious worship. According to the research, “43 percent of people who attend church at least once a week reported being ‘very happy’ while only 26 percent of those who attend ‘seldom or never’ said the same.”
According to Farino, other factors that contribute to happiness include work; good health; social engagement with friends, family and community; volunteerism; “good urban design”; and sunshine.
It is not surprising, as David Myers notes, that happiness seems to relate more to people than things. In his words, “We humans have a deep need to belong – to connect with others in close, supportive, intimate, caring relationships. … People who have such close relationships are more likely to report themselves ‘very happy.'”
Also unsurprising is that these voluntary, cooperative relationships that help bring us happiness are not a product of government – they primarily come in and through non-governmental institutions such as family, friendship, religion and community groups.
For this reason, Sutherland advocates for government protection and encouragement of such institutions, which conservatives have called intermediary associations, institutions of civil society, or “little platoons,” not only because these vital institutions are a source of happiness, but also because they act as a buffer between us and government to protect us from despotism.
Our American system of government has largely protected and encouraged these institutions. For example, not coincidentally, the first right protected in the First Amendment to the Constitution is the free exercise of religion. The Founders also established a free market system that gives us the opportunity to work and earn a living. Further, Americans have the freedom to marry, bear children and raise them with relatively little government interference.
In recent decades, however, a growing assault has begun to weaken these institutions as well as government protection of them, which diminishes our ability to pursue happiness.
While government cannot guarantee our happiness, it can secure our right to pursue happiness by protecting the existence of these fundamental institutions of society and by allowing and encouraging them to flourish.