This piece also appears on Nikhil Goyal's blog in Psychology Today
“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”
--The Declaration of Independence
A few months ago, I met a high school senior who had recently been accepted to Princeton. “I really wanted to go to a small liberal arts school where I could focus on creative writing in an intimate environment, but my parents said I should go to the best school that I get into,” she related to me. She went on to say that her parents were also pressuring her to consider a more lucrative profession. What ever happened, I wondered, to the right to pursue happiness?
America’s founders believed that God instilled in every individual a sense of purpose, and it was the right of each person to discover and live out that purpose. For them, happiness was the deep sense of satisfaction growing out of living a life of passion and meaning. So strongly did they believe this that they enshrined the pursuit of happiness into the American creed, deeming it one of three rights worth mentioning in the Declaration of Independence.
The right to pursue happiness has always been an odd bird, but somehow still central to America’s sense of self. The other two rights cited in the Declaration of Independence—Life and Liberty—establish our freedom from those who would harm us. With these two rights there is a corresponding legal obligation not to interfere with an individual’s freedom. But with the right to pursue happiness, there’s no corresponding legal obligation. No one goes to jail for failing to make another happy. The right does, however, imply a duty to create the conditions that best enable the pursuit of happiness. It’s a demand of our culture not of our legal system.
At the time of the nation’s founding, freshly liberated from British rule, Americans fully embraced the right to pursue happiness. They were fiercely independent of established authority, masters of their own destiny. One-hundred years into the American experiment—with the onset of the industrial era—Americans summarily abandoned the right to pursue happiness in exchange for unparalleled affluence. And another one hundred years later, with the industrial era on life support and a less hierarchical and more dynamic socioeconomic order on the ascendency, we have yet to fully reclaim it.
As the industrial era set in, assured of unprecedented prosperity, the doyens of industry went to great lengths to snuff out the right to pursue happiness. The education system quickly followed suit. America’s emerging economic model required the creation of a massive and docile workforce engaged in monotonous and menial work. Henry Ford’s assembly-line reduced the once independently-minded American worker into a mere component part of a giant machine. While at first not every worker acceded to these conditions, eventually, as other industries embraced scientific management practices, workers had little choice but to comply. The new culture of compliance not only affected factory workers but, in due course, shaped the self-image of all but the most entrepreneurially-inclined. It was hard to argue with the results: the standard of living of the average American increased by a factor of fifty in the succeeding decades.
Not long after, compulsory education, designed to move the child of the farmer from the fields to the factory, became the mirror image of the factory, complete with ringing bells and shift changes at regular intervals. The American education system did not enable the pursuit of happiness—far from it —nor did it advance critical thinking or independent thought. Kids were provided the skills, with a special emphasis on reading, writing and arithmetic, necessary to be compliant workers in the industrial economy. Despite sweeping economic change in the past three decades, the vast majority of schools still adhere to the factory model.
More than a century after Ford introduced the Model T, the majority of industrial jobs are long gone. Those that remain are vulnerable to more advanced machinery and a growing semi-skilled workforce in Asia. Even many of the information-age jobs are at risk to lower paid tech workers in places like India.
Notwithstanding this big shift, America's core institutions—family, school and work—are stuck in the old industrial mindset, unable to see and adjust to the new economic reality. These institutions are predisposed to moving people along, like a factory conveyor belt, into fulfilling the perceived needs of declining industries. Fearful of change, they conspire to set our sights low. Too many workplaces, counter to their own interests, still place a premium on employing the unimaginative but dependable worker; nearly all schools educate students to be that unimaginative but dependable worker; and most parents dutifully oblige, preparing their children to take their place in this decaying social order. Our core institutions continue to insist that young people trade their potential for happiness for the promise of wealth, status and stability, which, tragically, will make them both less happy and less wealthy.
When Americans finally become unstuck, they will find a whole new universe of opportunity waiting. The very forces that are wiping out the old economy and the old work are giving life to a new economy and new work. The technology that destroyed jobs creates the possibility of mass private enterprise. There’s greater opportunity than ever before in human history to innovate and connect with new markets. In the industrial age, the potential for entrepreneurship was scarce, requiring large amounts of capital or super-human initiative; today it's abundant, requiring nothing more than a laptop, a creative eye and an adventurous spirit.
In this new era, raising and educating our kids to obtain basic skills and follow a once defined path to success went from being a good bet to a bad bet. Raising and educating them to bring out their creativity, chase their dreams, and dare to be different is both less risky and potentially more rewarding. Far from being an obstacle to productivity as it was during the industrial era, the pursuit of happiness is key to thriving in the emerging connection economy. Our economic fortunes will likely grow in direct proportion to the number of people who throw off their industrial-era shackles, figure out what they were meant to do, and bring their talents to the marketplace.
We gave up the right to pursue happiness in the 20th century and desperately need to get it back in the 21st.