Life, Liberty & the American Dream
I find it rather perplexing how our nation’s mythic goal changed from the Pursuit of Happiness to the American Dream. Likewise, some years ago I sat down and read our nation’s founding documents, only to discover that “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” in the Declaration of Independence transformed to “Life, Liberty and Property” in two amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Was this a bait-and-switch?
I spent several years tracking down the history of the concept of happiness, and it goes back to Aristotle, who said that everyone’s goal in life is happiness, but everyone disagrees on what happiness is. Some say it is wealth and property, while others see it as honor and fame. Aristotle described happiness as the fulfillment of your potential through excellent action. (Of course, he concluded that the most sublime activity was doing philosophy — imagine that.)
The idea that happiness was the purpose of life held constant for the next two thousand years, and that’s why it ended up in the Declaration. But just as in ancient Greece, everyone agreed on the primacy of happiness, but they all interpreted it in different ways. James Madison tried to sneak happiness into the Bill of Rights, but it was shot down in committee. Even though politicians quote the phrase a lot, it is not a right protected by the Constitution.
So the idea of the American Dream filled that vacuum in the public mind, and it has always had the connotation of having a successful life — with an implication of striking it rich. Indeed, President Ronald Reagan once characterized the American Dream by saying that America is a place where anyone can become a millionaire. In this issue we look at various versions of how people are living out their Dream, and we find that the concept indeed includes wealth, but it doesn’t stop there.
For example, we talked to several billionaires, including those who inherited wealth and one who started from scratch. In both cases, they were not fulfilled simply by being rich; they found a higher value in their lives by leading nonprofit efforts in education, the arts and civic ventures. It harks back to John Taft’s 2015 book, A Force for Good. He argues that the financial recession of 2008 was caused by financiers who saw money as an end in itself, rather than the means to serve the greater good.
Every sane business person wants to build wealth. Indeed, many entrepreneurs start out with their exit strategy already in place: cashing in by being acquired. Others see entrepreneurship as a way to grow a community out of a cycle of poverty, whether it is in North Minneapolis or in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood.
Money, then, is a tool to achieve happiness, but not an end in itself. So, if it is just a tool, then it might make sense to contemplate the idea of a universal guaranteed income. And if money isn’t everything, does that help to figure out how to achieve a work/life balance? Some say it’s not possible.
But it seems that more entrepreneurs are Pursuing Happiness as an essential feature of their American Dream.