Free People Are Happy People
—especially when strong personal morality guides their choices.
The earliest American definition of liberty—stated frequently by the Founding Fathers—is about constraints on personal actions: if I don’t hurt anybody else, I should be free to pursue my own will. As Thomas Jefferson put it in his first inaugural address, “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” Despite more recent attempts to expand our understanding of freedom to include claims on one another or on government—FDR’s 1941 State of the Union speech, for example, which mentioned “freedom from want”—about two-thirds of Americans still define freedom in terms of doing what they want, being able to make their own choices, or having liberty in speech and religion.
Understanding freedom is a matter of no small importance. The Founders believed that it was one of at least three fundamental rights from God, along with life and the pursuit of happiness. These three rights are interrelated: not only does liberty, of course, depend on life, but the pursuit of happiness depends on liberty. In fact, evidence shows that freedom and happiness are strongly linked. But what kind of freedom makes Americans happiest? And what can government best do to promote freedom and help us pursue happiness, as is our inalienable right?
A large body of social-science research over the past decade has been devoted to studying happiness. In general, researchers rely on self-reported measurements of happiness—which, according to considerable work by psychologists, statisticians, and neuroscientists, are actually quite accurate and comparable among individuals. (This has been shown by comparing people’s survey responses to psychological evaluations, surveys of family members, and even tests of...
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