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Happiness: We’ve Swapped Eudemonia For Bliss

April 26th, 2019 by dk

I seem to have a theme going about words whose meaning has changed since our country was founded, so let’s talk about something that might be more relevant to you than high crimes or misdemeanors (which used to mean failure of duty, not minor infractions.)

If you’ve wondered why happiness is so hard to hold onto, it’s worth knowing that happiness wasn’t regarded as a possession at all until about a century ago. Happiness, to our Founding Fathers, was synonymous with “living a good life.” Happiness was more a verb than a noun. The concept was rooted in a term Aristotle favored: eudemonia.

You may not know that word, but you know its cousin: pandemonium, which means, literally, “all little spirits” or movement in all directions. Eudemonia means “good spirit” or striving for good. That’s what happiness meant in 17776.

So when Thomas Jefferson was writing our Declaration of Independence, he thought he was improving on Locke’s 1689 “Two Treatises of Government.” Locke had his own trinity of inalienable rights: life, liberty, and property. Jefferson knew that property rights were already a flashpoint in colonial America, so he subbed in “the pursuit of happiness.”

As long as happiness was measured as striving for the (spiritual, higher, common) good, all was well. The government’s role was to protect its citizens’ lives, their freedoms, and their ability to strive for a common good.

If supporting the welfare of others was what every American wanted to do, government’s involvement can be very limited. Every American should contribute his or her own eudemonia — striving for good. Jefferson’s goal was to make government as irrelevant as possible to its citizens.

Alas, words change. And people do too. Sometimes people change words, but more often words change people.

Happiness started as an elegant encapsulation of the democratic ideal. If we’re all looking out for one another, no tyranny could ever take hold. We affirmed in our founding documents that we were all equal and together, striving for good.

But democracy didn’t give us rapid economic growth. Capitalism did. So “happiness” was taken over and redefined by the mercantile class, to sell its goods. Everybody wants to feel happy. In fact, hadn’t we been promised exactly that? Wasn’t government required to give us everything we desire?

Property, from Locke’s pen, was self-limiting. It was possible to have too much property, as American soldiers showed King George III. Happiness, at least in the modern sense, is not self-limiting. Nobody ever believes they have too much of it.

This points to a gripe I have with the so-called Happiness Index. What pollsters are able to measure and call happiness is really more accurately described as the absence of envy.

Cultures with less economic diversity are the places where people report more happiness. Rich Scandinavian countries and poor Latin American countries score near the top. What matters isn’t wealth. It’s whether commonalities with peers are keenly felt. That was America once. Today’s America is less happy in the modern sense because we’ve stopped striving for the common good, which was America’s first definition of happiness.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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