We may like, hate or be indifferent to different aspects of American life and culture, but this essential American Dream now underpins the Chinese Dream, Turkish Dream, African Dream, Indian Dream - dreams everywhere! It has become a governing philosophy, and sometimes at the expense of the other two essential aspects of life Jefferson had in mind.
True, happiness means different things to different people. An Indian may see it as a comfortable life alongside his parents, which would perhaps be unbearable for a Brit. A man would define happiness differently from a woman. But, despite all these differences, our society could be defined as one unified in pursuit of happiness.
Why did this catch on? When Jefferson was writing, Life would have been the most important goal, given the number of autocrats then ruled the world, followed by Liberty, which was perhaps the point of his writing. Pursuit of Happiness would have been a distant third, important as it is, but the other battles had to be won first.
There may be different explanations to this. First, that the right to pursue Happiness came after we secured the rights of life and liberty well enough. And, indeed, happiness was, is, an individual thing. As individuals, not societies, became the centre of our universe, pursuit of happiness caught on.
But these are retroactive justifications. Most plausible is the nature of our industrial society, which now produces many, most, things that we require to live without us having to do anything about it. We have, collectively, moved from a producer to a consumer life, as Zygmunt Baumann would say, and indeed, our best social contribution, if newspapers have to be believed, is to consume more and more and pursue individual happiness. This indicates a change of ethics - we forgive banks of creating serious imbalances because they (often, not they, but people employed by them) pay taxes, and get angry at Facebook or Google for not paying them - and what is important to us. As a recent book proclaims, only if satirically, I consume, therefore I am!
Where does this lead to, though? To a world of consumers where machines do all the productive activities, and the only thing we get to do is leisure. Even if such a world is possible, which it is not without making a lot of people worse off, would that really be desirable? I know there are many people who do not have to have to do a decent day of work in life and they get to decide how we live, and surely, from their vantage point, being there is a great thing. This pursuit of happiness, in its pure form - one can call this laziness - drives all our activities and direct our thinking.
However, there are two problems with it. First, this works against the fight for life and liberty. As we desperately look to protect our cocoons of happiness, we send out Bombers on the skies of Syria, Libya and Iraq. We manipulate the grain prices in Africa, and quarantine, rather than seek to cure, those poor West Africans suffering from Ebola. We fund dictators when it suits our pursuit of happiness, and indeed, install them in office as long as they promise good days.
The second is that as human beings, we undermine the very thing that made us. We thrived as social beings, but in our happiness induced trance, we seek to retire into lazy cocoons. When some people disagree - there are always people who are seeking other things, like meaning in life - we shut them out of our lives, brand them as eccentrics or failures. But, then, we find ourselves lonely in our happiness, like a drug-induced paradise that only lasts as long as the illusion. Being in happiness is not we desire, we figure out, and Jefferson may have meant that only the pursuit that matters. That is exactly what he said, we remember, and said that in conjunction with two other things. That journey, and only that journey that combines meaningful life, freedom and an unending quest for happiness, may be what makes us human, and keep us that.