The Pursuit of Happiness, Seen Through a Great Photographer’s Lens
The Fourth of July always carries with it a great deal of national soul-searching — along with the obligatory barbecues, pool parties, Wiffle Ball games (always more fun with the ball wrapped in electrical tape) and other summery entertainments. Independence Day, after all, can just as easily be interpreted as a day of freedom from responsibilities and daily cares as a marker of America’s tumultuous birth.
One phrase associated with the Declaration of Independence, meanwhile — “the pursuit of happiness” — has long been something of a sticking point in any discussion of what our unalienable rights really are. Here, on the heels of TIME magazine’s special summer double-issue organized around that very theme, LIFE.com recalls a feature from LIFE magazine almost exactly 65 years ago, when the editors convened a roundtable of heavy thinkers to tackle the slippery question: What does the “pursuit of happiness” actually mean?
Rather than reprinting the entire article, however, we’ve chosen to focus on one, discrete and engaging visual aspect of the feature — namely, 20 photographs by one well-known LIFE photographer that, to one degree or another, capture the face of happiness. As LIFE wrote in that July 12, 1948, issue, the pictures are emblems of “some happy moments that Alfred Eisenstaedt photographed over a number of years. … In a casual way they illustrate the great scope of the American pursuit of happiness — ranging from religious dedication and honors on the college campus to beauty contests and touchdowns.”
It is asserted in the Declaration of Independence that men are endowed with three “unalienable rights” — Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. The first two terms of this remarkable formula are familiar enough; but the third term, the Pursuit of Happiness, is much more difficult to grasp. Not only is it unique with the American system, it has received relatively little attention from political theorists. So the question arises: What does the Third Right mean? Few really know.
Can the Third Right really be applied in our time? Do we know how to use it? Are we exercising it in such a way as to build a better society? Or are we, through carelessness or selfishness, pursuing happiness so as to corrupt and undermine the great heritage that Jefferson left us when he helped found our democracy?