by Mark Setton, Founder of the Pursuit of Happiness, this article was originally published in the Huffington Post

It seems that many Americans have been pursuing the Wall Street version of happiness with a vengeance, encouraged by the 2006 blockbuster “Pursuit of Happyness,” in which Will Smith and his real-life son become best buddies in an epic journey from rags to riches. Try typing “pursuit of happiness” on Google. Half of the page is filled with websites devoted to the movie, in spite of the fact that you got the spelling right. It’s no wonder that, in the minds of many Americans, the “pursuit of happiness” is unconsciously equated with the pursuit of wealth and security.

What did Thomas Jefferson mean when he enshrined the “pursuit of happiness” as a basic right in the Declaration of Independence? He failed to explain why, at least not in the original document, nor in his official correspondence. One of the most influential theories doing the rounds is that Jefferson simply plagiarized the English political thinker John Locke, who championed “life, liberty and estate (property).” According to this view, Jefferson’s replacement of the word “estate” with the “pursuit of happiness,” was essentially a play on words. The “pursuit of happiness” was a euphemism for the pursuit of wealth. From this perspective, Jefferson’s vision of happiness was the “rags to riches” version of the good life.

There is a good chance that we have profoundly misunderstood Jefferson’s view of happiness. One reason is that we have misunderstood the Greek thinker Epicurus, who, as it turns out, had a major impact on his thinking.

Rags to riches…or riches in rags?

A few years back I read that Jefferson was an “Epicurean.” In my mind it reinforced the credibility of the “rags to riches” theory. Over the years I had read textbooks and articles echoing the same refrain: Epicurus was an “egoistic hedonist”…ie someone who championed the pursuit of personal pleasure–for moi and moi alone, as Miss Piggy, the ruthless diva of Muppets fame, would have put it.

But life is full of surprises. Last summer, as soon as I stepped into my mother’s apartment in the south of France, she began excitedly waving the latest issue of the Nouvel Observateur, a sort of liberal Newsweek. It was devoted to the “Art of Happiness.” She knows that I am fairly obsessed with the topic. The cover displayed a naked couple locked in fond embrace (a great stereotype of the Epicurean life, and probably why the issue sold out). Yet the cover story, which was devoted entirely to the life and thought of Epicurus, sang a different tune.

I teach Asian philosophy, and I was astonished by the parallels between Buddha and Epicurus. Apparently, Epicurus did not teach in a lavishly funded Academy. Instead he conversed with his students in a cozy, well-tended garden. He treated his followers like family, emphasized simplicity and the need to tame desires, especially those not aimed at the “necessities” of life, and pretty well equated happiness with peace of mind.

In other words, if he was around now, you wouldn’t see Epicurus on Wall Street. He was not a proponent of the “rags to riches” view of happiness. Far from it. You could call it the “riches within rags” view of happiness. Simply put, if you cultivated close friendships, limited your desires to the essential necessities of life, and rejoiced in the moment, happiness was yours to keep.

I hit the books. It turns out that, in a letter to William Short, an ex-neighbor and private secretary who served him in Paris, Jefferson bluntly states that “I am an Epicurean.” What follows is an amazingly sophisticated analysis, and a lament, on how profoundly Epicurus was misunderstood by Greek and Roman philosophers and as a result, the contemporary world. Jefferson underlines the gentle, “rational” moral philosophy of Epicurus that rejects over-indulgence and leads to peace of mind. At the end of the letter he outlines a syllabus of Epicurus’ philosophy. This includes the topic “happiness is the aim of life.”

If Jefferson really was an Epicurean, the third of his “unalienable” human rights is much more than a veiled glorification of the rat race.

If the “pursuit of happiness” is such a distinguished human right, why aren’t we teaching about it in our schools? American kids learn about the remaining two, life and liberty (especially liberty), until they are blue in the face.

Teach about one of the ultimate goals of life? How silly! We’ve got to teach useful stuff! Such is the shallow pragmatism embedded in our school system.

One more problem is, of course, whose version of happiness should we teach?

How about the scientific version?

Science and the pursuit of happiness

Traditionally psychologists have focused their attentions on what makes depressed people depressed.

Yet recently a small group of scientists has turned the question on its head. Now they are asking: “What makes happy people happy?” This Copernican shift in perspective has given rise to the new “science of happiness.”

During the last two decades, numerous studies by “positive psychologists” such as Ed Diener and Martin Seligman have tried to place the study of human well-being on a scientific foundation. Many of these studies have homed in on small groups of “very happy people” and analyzed their lifestyles and personalities through questionnaires and interviews.

They found that, to a certain extent, the happiness that people can intentionally generate through their thoughts and actions can “psych out” genetically acquired gloominess.

Seligman’s bottom line is that happiness has three dimensions that can be cultivated: “The pleasant life” is realized if we learn to savor and appreciate such basic pleasures as companionship, the natural environment and our bodily needs.

We can remain pleasantly stuck at this stage or we can go on to experience “the good life,” which is achieved by discovering our unique virtues and strengths and employing them creatively to enhance our lives.

The final stage is “the meaningful life,” in which we find a deep sense of fulfillment by mobilizing our unique strengths for a purpose much greater than ourselves.

The genius of Seligman’s theory is that it reconciles two conflicting views of human happiness – the individualistic approach, which emphasizes that we should take care of ourselves and nurture our own strengths, and the altruistic approach, which tends to downplay individuality and emphasizes self-sacrifice.

The debate between the positive psychologists and their critics, who claim that the new science is based on wishful thinking, is far from over. This is hardly a surprise if one thinks of the contrasts between them. Positive psychology is more proactive and preventative, whereas traditional psychology is more problem-oriented.

Yet within the science of happiness some major areas of consensus are emerging. Many of the new studies are confirming what great philosophical and spiritual thinkers from Confucius to Aristotle taught us long ago. In spite of powerful genetic and environmental influences, a sizeable chunk of our mental well-being depends on our actions and attitudes. Secondly, by cultivating certain strengths and virtues, we are not escaping from the causes of depression. On the contrary, this strategy seems to generate a resilience that protects us from it.

So now, a new science, which in fascinating ways is confirming ancient insights from East and West, is opening the door to an unprecedented opportunity. We can now analyze the growing mountain of data on “subjective well-being” or happiness, and separate the science from the hype. You may have noticed that there is a lot of hype about happiness. Next, we need to show how the results can be applied it to the real world. Not least, we need to translate the scientific jargon into proper English. As the writers of computer manuals used to say, “easy is difficult.” This too will take a lot of brain power. Academics are very good at digging up profound truths and burying them again with equal success. Finally, we need to integrate this new-found wisdom with existing curricula, both in high schools and universities.

In a society that spends more than $25 billion a year on psychopharmaceuticals (that’s $85 a person) and untold billions dealing with family dysfunction, shouldn’t education on mental well-being take priority?

This article is adapted from content at Pursuit-of-Happiness.org.

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