Week Five in 2013 dissects Jefferson’s ‘pursuit’

Kelsey Burritt | Staff Writer

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson’s immortal words penned in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence have been repeated endlessly, and at present, their meaning has become numbed, if not warped. Life seems to be within our grasp, liberty more or less achieved. But, the pursuit of happiness is more elusive than ever.

Week Five’s theme for the 2013 season is “The Pursuit of Happiness” and will ask Chautauquans to revisit Jefferson’s intended meaning of the phrase, how we can define and measure happiness, and whether American optimism persists.

The week will focus on the theme of happiness from a variety of angles. It will kick off with the establishment of a historical context on the topic, then shift to current sociological trends, touch on the latest neurological studies, and wrap up by putting America’s gauge of happiness in a global perspective.

“The reason we think this is relevant right this minute is because happiness as a concept is continuing to change,” said Sherra Babcock, director of the Department of Education. “And we think perhaps change even further away from what Jefferson meant.”

Because 2013 does not fall on a major election year, it opens the opportunity for a multifaceted discussion without much political argument, Babcock said.

The one confirmed speaker for the week so far is Charles Murray, conservative scholar and author who works with the American Enterprise Institute.

Murray’s numerous books include Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 and The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Another book, published between those two, In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government, speaks to happiness in the context of class and American society.

Murray’s mother worked with the Nebraska and South Dakota chautauquas that were pioneered in the 1910s and 1920s.

“He was thrilled to be invited and thrilled to have this closed loop in his family,” Babcock said.

From a neurological standpoint, recent studies have attempted to shed light on what motivates human activity and what stimuli creates the “happiness” response across ages and sexes.

“The thing that troubled me was the sense that we’re becoming such a self-satisfying society,” President Tom Becker said. “Whether it’s that we only listen to news that we want to hear, or whether it’s (that) we only hang around the people who aren’t going to contradict us.”

Becker said there is a sort of self-centeredness that feeds into the way society perceives happiness.

Looking back to a week on “The History of Liberty” in 2009, Becker reflected on discussions that brought the audience back to Aristotelian thought, through Ancient Greece and Rome. Happiness at that time was founded less on self-satisfaction and more on self-realization, meaning expression and contribution through citizenry.

Lewis Thomas believed a good life was measured in contribution and that such meaning in life would constitute happiness, Becker said.

Jefferson was tapping into classic images of happiness. What he had in mind when using those words in the Declaration of Independence was the more classic meaning of happiness defined by involved, contributing members of society. Not, as Becker put, the happiness of a toy and a Happy Meal.

“The reason that this place is flourishing right now is that people, I think, are aggressively looking for meaning in a sea of information,” Becker said.

Perhaps that pursuit of meaning is also a pursuit of happiness, in which case Chautauquans next year might be able to track down some answers, as long as they don’t go looking in a Happy Meal.