Think about this — if someone were to ask you to name the single most profound sentence ever written in the English language, what would you say? I can only imagine the fascinating variety of responses we would come up with and the great conversations they would inspire. To kick things off, I’d like to share the sentence that gets my vote hands down.
“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.”
Not only did this statement provide the original justification for our existence as an independent nation, but it irrevocably linked us to all of humanity and provided the philosophical foundation for democracy itself. And what is more, this sentence did something that we tend to lose sight of in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives — it enshrined the pursuit of happiness as a natural aspiration that deserves protection as a fundamental human right.
Why is happiness so important? Because happiness is a clue to how we are supposed to be living. Human beings have evolved emotions to help guide our behaviors in the direction of survival and well-being. When we take emotions like happiness seriously, we are listening to wisdom that has been built into our species over millions of years. We ignore happiness at the peril of our very existence.
A good example of the way our emotions provide clues to how we should live is noted in Bill McKibben’s book, Deep Economy. McKibben asks “Why do people so often look back on their college days as the best years of their lives? Usually, it’s not because their classes were so fascinating. More important is the fact that they lived more closely and intensely in a community than ever before or since (college is the four years in an American life when we live roughly as we’ve evolved to live).” I suppose evolution never considered the rising costs of a college education, but you get the idea. When something feels right, there is usually a good reason.
So what does this mean for how we set priorities in our society? In his TED Talk on The Happy Planet Index, Nic Marks makes a compelling case that GDP is a misleading and grossly inadequate indicator of progress that fails to tell us much about quality of life for the average person. He quotes Robert Kennedy in saying that “The gross national product measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.” Marks goes on to suggest we put some thought into designing a new national accounting system based on such important factors as social justice, sustainability, and people’s happiness and well-being. His company, the New Economics Foundation, is doing just that.
This got me thinking about how we measure success in education. Sure, test scores have their place. But do they tell us everything we need to know — namely, are our children learning what makes life worthwhile? Are we paying attention to the emotional indicators that help our children tell the difference between what is of lasting value and what is not? Are we teaching them to trust their own inner voice, or are we demanding that they ignore this intuitive wisdom in the service of someone else’s agenda? When was the last time we asked students if they were really happy – and actually listened to them?
No, our emotions are not infallible guides, but they are guides nonetheless. They are clues to how we find lives worth living and work worth doing. In helping our children responsibly define and pursue happiness, both for themselves and others, we are teaching them a truth so fundamental and profound as to have been declared self-evident. Our schools, and our community, must create the conditions that make this pursuit possible.
Jim Strickland lives with his family in Marysville and teaches at Marysville-Pilchuck High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.