Happiness v. Property: From Jefferson and Franklin to Cuba and the United States

The most famous phrase in Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration of Independence includes the statement that “all men” possess the “unalienable right” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Conventional history and wisdom says that Jefferson replaced the third word of John Locke’s trinity – “life, liberty, and property” – with “the pursuit of happiness.” The trinity appeared in Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1689). But, as numerous researchers have noted over the years, Jefferson likely derived the expression from other sources, including perhaps Locke’s own use of the words “pursuit of happiness” in a 1690 essay titled On Human Understanding.

At the same time, academics and others have reminded us, Jefferson meant something other than the pursuit of property by “the pursuit of happiness.”  Like his compatriot Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson tended to downplay protection of property (the clear leading aim behind the U.S. Constitution) as a legitimate goal of government. (For his part, Franklin viewed property as a “creature of society” that should be taxed to finance “civil society.”)

The prolific American historian and author Garry Wills thinks Jefferson was influenced by the following passage from the Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767): “If, in reality, courage and a heart devoted to the good of mankind are the constituents of human felicity, the kindness which is done infers a happiness in the person from whom it proceeds, not in him on whom it is bestowed…” It is possible also that Jefferson was informed by 17th-century cleric and philosopher Richard Cumberland, who wrote that promoting the well-being of our fellow humans is essential to the “pursuit of our own happiness.”

It is important in our time to note not merely the difference but also the basic conflict between “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” on one hand and the pursuit of property (broadly understood here to include wealth, capital, goods, and money) on the other hand. In their groundbreaking book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2009), the British health researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett showed that that numerous key measures and indications of human well-being and (conversely)  human dysfunction – life expectancy, mental illness, healthy body weight, disease rates, friendships, social cohesion, trust levels, educational performance, literacy, violence, racial and ethnic conflict, child abuse, status-seeking, soulless consumerism, civic engagement, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, incarceration, environmental destruction – are affected less by how wealthy a society is than by how unequal it is. Societies with a bigger gap between the rich and the poor do far more poorly on all of these measures and traits than do more equal societies. They are worse off for everyone in them, including even many among the relatively well-off.  By contrast, more equal societies produce healthier, happier people than do less equal societies whether comparisons are made between “rich nations” (i.e., egalitarian Norway vs. the hierarchical United States) or between “poor nations” (egalitarian Cuba vs. hierarchical Brazil).[1]

Which brings us back to the nation that Jefferson and Franklin helped bring into being. The United States today is the most unequal among so-called advanced nations by far, with a wealth distribution closer to hyper-unequal Africa and Latin America than to Western Europe and Japan. The top tenth of the U.S. top 1 percent has more net worth than nearly the bottom 90 percent of the U.S. population. The U.S. is a militantly capitalist nation in which the relatively unlimited pursuit of property wealth on the part of a super-opulent, accumulation-addicted corporate and financial Few has combined with “free market” (really corporate and state-capitalist) forces to produce insecurity, poverty, and low upward mobility for a large struggling and precariously situated segment of the populace. Not surprisingly, the ever more openly oligarchic and plutocratic U.S. (“the best democracy money can buy”) scores higher than its other “advance nation” counterparts when it comes to each of Wilkinson and Pickett’s negative indicators.

This is property and wealth of a certain historical kind – “modern” capitalist property and wealth (only in its infancy in the US when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence) – working against the pursuit of happiness for the broad citizenry. We aren’t talking merely about “property in contrast to” and “as opposed to” happiness but rather about “property as actively opposed to happiness.”

The happiness price for property-chasing is most obviously paid by the property-less and property-poor Many, who face chronic insecurity, exploitation, and poverty thanks to the wealth, power, and machinations of the super-propertied Few. When life and liberty are under constant assault by richer and power victors in the great capitalist property chase, the pursuit of happiness is a daunting hunt for millions of the non-affluent. Even among extremely and relatively well-off people, however, discontent and alienation results from the seemingly endless pursuit of property, wealth, goods, and money. One of the more durable and consistent findings of social psychology is that an increase in material well-being yields diminishing happiness returns once people make the basic leap beyond material poverty and insecurity. The biggest boost in life satisfaction that people ever derive from an increase in their economic standing comes by far when they move from poverty to basic security in food, clothing, and shelter. After that, the psychological benefits trail. Worse, the chasing of more, of more wealth, property, goods and money often becomes a source of personal and spiritual emptiness, isolation, and estrangement.  It is no paradox that significant numbers of wealthy people the world over suffer from alienation, anxiety, depression, addiction, and other mental and emotional maladies.

All of that no doubt is why I was (at first counter-intuitively) struck after a recent trip from the “wealthy” United States to impoverished Cuba by the much greater visible happiness and vibrancy of people in the second nation. In terms of per-capita income and wealth, the North American superpower (my “homeland”) is obviously far “better off.” Cuba is a small and “backwater” island nation by comparison. Paint is peeling off many of the buildings in Havana.  Many structures there seem to be crumbling and in various states of disrepair. Sidewalks and streets are full of cracks and potholes. The average Cuban wage is roughly $30 a month, or 20 cents an hour. Technical infrastructure is very limited. People drive ancient (but remarkably well-preserved) General Motors cars from the 1950s, vehicles that can’t get more than 9 miles a gallon, along with old Russian cars (Ladas were the most common brand I saw) that Cubans also miraculously manage to keep running in the 21st century. There is a very narrow range of basic consumer goods in local stores. Hotels, restaurants, and cellphones are beyond most Cubans’ means. And yet a remarkable number of the people I saw and met there seemed positively happy.

That’s the same exact thing the Japanese journalist Makiko Saito was struck by when she visited Cuba three years ago: the seeming paradox of happy people surrounded by overall poverty and decay. Just like me, she was knocked out by how much more contented, joyful, and alive people seemed in the economically poor nation she had just visited than in the economically wealthy bot more socially and psychologically dead nation in which she resided.

Why might people be happier in a poor and “backward” nation than in a wealth and “advanced” one? Part of it is certainly that basic material and human use value needs are being met by the island’s in-fact socialist government – this despite a crippling six-decade U.S. economic embargo that that explains no small part of Cuba’s overall poverty and material decay.  Education and medical care are free and a government food rationing system guarantees everyone the bare satisfaction of basic needs. Beyond this meeting of fundamental needs – no small matter (recall that humans derive no greater happiness dividend from material gain than elevation from poverty to basic security) – there is socialist (and relatively egalitarian) Cuba comparatively little of the United States’ alienating rat-chase for the soulless more: more consumer goods, more wealth, more purported satisfaction from purchases beyond basic needs, more technological devices with which to insulate oneself from society,  more private property with which to drive others into poverty (one thing that really struck me on returning to the U.S. after four days in Cuba was the ubiquity here of labor-eliminating, joblessness-inducing technologies) and oneself into spiritual death. As the Japan Times noted, reflecting on Makiko Saito’s account of her trip to Cuba, “Maybe the relentless pursuit of economic growth precludes happiness. Happiness is the price you pay, rather than the prize you claim, for prosperity.” The Cubans can’t afford modern disenchantment and depression.

When it comes to the pursuit of property, the “rich” U.S. has state socialist Cuba beat hands down. When it comes to human well-being, “poor” Cuba wins just as decisively. There is, turns out, no irony and no paradox in that contrast. Let us hope Cuban can someday come out from under the embargo without losing the spirit level of social happiness that it enjoys under its version of socialism.

Paul Street is an author in Iowa City, Iowa.

1. Some knowledgeable readers may wonder why I have chosen not to cite the various national and comparative-international studies that have been conducted over the years to measure different and changing levels of human happiness. The most notable such study is the Columbia University-based Earth Institute’s World Happiness Report (2012). The reason is that I do not have a lot of respect for the highly superficial and suspect survey data and methodologies on which such studies are based.  For useful reflections on the problems with this data, see Arianna Huffington, ‘Why I’m Unhappy With Happiness Surveys,” Huffington Post, August 9, 2013. The Earth Institute’s researchers admitted the following in the introduction to their study: “in the end, happiness is an inherently qualitative concept that cannot be translated into quantitative terms with any reliable degree of precision or comparability between people, reflecting ‘the gap between the open-ended nature of many dimensions of life and the bounded scale imposed by questionnaires.’”


  1. avatar
    Michael July 18, 2015 3:24 pm 

    A couple of anecdotal references, which I know in a numbers-statistics obsessed academic setting are often denigrated.

    I lived in two Latin American countries for many years, one relatively middle-class and better off and the other ranking as the second-poorest in the hemisphere. In each, social interaction was much more spontaneous, frequent, and enriching than anything one generally can experience in the U.S. Yes, I know there are exceptions and there are people in the U.S. who have emotionally rich social networks. But, by and large, we work, we sleep, and we pay our bills with multiple jobs, hours of commutes, and other often stressful activities.

    In these two countries it was normal and ever so easy to join with friends without planning or formal organizations working so hard to bring like-minded people together.

    One day, as an example, in the poor country, I was walking down a dirt road not far from my home and there were five men I did not know, seated around the most humble of tables, chatting and drinking–don’t necessarily assume alcohol, but yes there was a little, there was also a two-liter soft drink as well. I called out, asking if I could photograph them. Even better, they said, come and sit with us. I did, we had a good time.

    Another, when my wife and I were away for a while, the first evening we returned, within a few minutes, we had neighbors gathered together with us in conversation. We could do this every evening if we wanted. A natural part of the social order and availability.

    A final example. In the “better to do country,” any day it was so easy to meet with a friend or two at a café and chat for an hour or two. Furthermore, the customs of the café did not include ordering, consuming, and leaving after some minutes. We could stay an hour or two with nothing more ordered than a coffee, or maybe two.

    How to put a price on such normal conviviality and its effects of health, social well-being, and gentle happiness? Also, such experiences were not stressful events of talking about work and all the rest that we in the U.S. are often accustomed to. I learned ever so much from these occurrences with friends, acquaintances, and even people that were new to me.

    I, too, hope that Cuba can retain what makes life beneficial in spite of (or perhaps in part because of) the merciless embargos and sanctions imposed by hegemonic powers. I hope one day, also, to make it to Cuba. I realize that in part this is a selfish quest to further my own well-being, awareness, and social consciousness.

  2. Richard Bluhm July 18, 2015 1:02 pm 

    Paul – I kept your article from last April that stated: “Cuba stands out among all nations (rich and poor) in a critical way. The makers of the United Nations’ Human Development Index (UNHDI) have found that Cuba is the OOOOOOONLY (emphasis added) country on the planet to combine a quality of life consistent with “high human development” with a globally sustainable carbon footprint.”

    It’s certainly clear to any rational being that Adam Smith’s invisible hand that the neoliberal world adores never learned how to wipe its very malodorous posterior.

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