Near the top of the Declaration of Independence are several key words that have left a lasting impact on our culture These words state that every citizen has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Looking back to the time period when this document was written, it’s clear how the insertion of these words was a brilliant choice of concepts to include in this founding document, which has been studied and debated since it was composed.

We’re already alive if we are capable of reading the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” so yeah, that one seems to be a given. But wait. Life, as in the good life? Life as in reaching for your dreams? Life, as in continually growing and giving back to the best of your ability to the culture you live in?

Liberty is a tricky one too. Liberty to do what exactly? Here you go, have a cup of liberty, filled to the brim. No, wait, that’s too much. We actually meant a thimble full. Liberty to do, be, strive for and keep figuring out what in the whole wide world one wants to do with this wondrous gift of liberty. Liberty to feel free and safe anywhere in your city, state, country? Liberty to be spiritual and not religious? Liberty to be open minded, and be full of liberality and loving kindness?

The third one is the most open to interpretation. The pursuit of happiness. Really? I can pursue, go on a quest for, chase after, keep on struggling to locate happiness? Thanks Declaration. Here’s why this phrase has been problematic for over 200 years: Every individual defines this vague concept with wildly different interpretations. Which is part of the beauty and wonder of our culture. There’s an extremely good chance your pursuit of happiness isn’t going be my pursuit of happiness. Think of just a few of the variables at work here. Differences in age, socio-economic factors, race, belief-systems, politics, and sexual persuasions. Go ahead. Toss a few of these variables in a blender and serve them up to the community at large. What makes every person in your household happy? How about your neighborhood? The city you live in? You won’t see any agreement once you move away from one or two people who are kind of sure about you and your likes and dislikes.

Portrait of a Curious Woman / 2015 / original collage / Russell C. Smith

What our culture wants us to believe is that by pursuing money, wealth, and fame… we’ll eventually reach happiness. Maybe this cultural construct was there from the start, and is the secret underlying message in our founding documents. To think that a room full of money equals the elusive goal of happiness is a powerful concept, but it’s just as accurate as saying you’ll always be happy if you live in the right neighborhood in the perfect city, meet the ideal partner, write a brilliant screenplay, or raise genius kids. Moments and weeks of happiness will occur at some point in all our lives. Whether it comes by chasing after it or when it just shows up on your doorstep one afternoon with a suitcase full of daydreams and confetti is another matter altogether.

What a grand gesture. The pursuit of happiness — codified into the founding document of a newly emerging nation. The nerve of those guys. And wow, the wit and heart of them to incorporate such an idea into a founding document. Happiness as an ideal to reach for and maybe not ever attain, but these Colonial founders at least wanted to plant the idea. Happiness should be pursued.  .

What if more than pursuing happiness had been included in the Declaration of Independence? What if the Founders had suggested we pursue other things?

·        How about pursuing truth?

·        What about pursuing love?

·        How about pursuing the fruits of the imagination and what it can create?

·        When should we begin more diligently pursuing world peace?

·        How about pursuing empathy and compassion?

None of the above ideas are codified into the declaration. We were given the green light to chase after happiness, wherever it may lead. Is it time to add some more specific ideas, ones that directly relate to our times? Should we update our founding documents? Happiness is a fine aim, in a general sense, under most circumstances. Although, one person’s happiness is another person’s joy. And, another person’s happiness is someone else’s deep sense of wonder. Then again, one person’s happiness can step on someone else’s toes. Truth be told, there are many other states of being and aims people strive for during the course of their lives. Maybe it’s time to filter in a wider selection of the highest qualities that make up the whole of human experience.

In the technology-driven culture we inhabit, we could certainly use several additions to the Bill of Rights, such as insuring the Internet is kept free and open for all, for as long as it exists.  And it’s no longer difficult to imagine a world in the near future where winner take all capitalism is viewed as an antiquated idea, like communism or feudalism. Compassion. Creativity. Love. Wealth. Sustainability. What will make you happy? Regardless, its past time to reinvent our philosophies and social contracts to better reflect the world we live in now, and the world we want those who come after us to live in.