Pursuit of Happiness

“Covid 19 Self Portrait” by Carl Zucker


I cringed when I heard Russian President Vladimir Putin announce: “There is no such thing as happiness…it’s only a mirage.” Shocked as I was, it seemed to me to be the ultimate denial of three American ideals embodied in our Declaration of Independence – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
     Somehow, as Americans, we seem to be totally comfortable with the symbolism of life and liberty, equality and justice for all. But talk about the pursuit of happiness and we become confused by its meaning. We are even unsure of whether we actually deserve to pursue happiness. Do we not deserve happiness or can we accept a life without some of the things we hold dear, such as the arts and music?
     I am just a kid from Far Rockaway who grew up with sand in my shoes, far away from anything that remotely resembled an artistic lifestyle. Somehow, I happened to wander into a lifetime of supporting the arts. I readily acknowledge there are more knowledgeable constitutional-savvy folks who have perhaps opined on this subject.   However, in this troubling time in our country, when our social and political future seem, shall we say, up for grabs, have we failed to acknowledge the pursuit of happiness as an important and actionable public purpose.
     Our forefathers understood and codified the pursuit of happiness as an essential goal of a true, fair, independent and hopeful America. Yet in more recent years, there seems to be a growing discounting, and even demonization, of the value of intangible resources like the arts. And, I don’t mean to say that the arts are the only measures of the pursuit of happiness. It may be wealth, or sports or something ornithology. At this moment in time, we have experienced a pandemic in which sheer survival was at stake.  In such a crisis, can we afford to dabble in the pursuit of happiness or can we afford not to?  Is the pursuit of happiness really the four letter word “hope”?  Do we need it to survive?
     Recently in my efforts to raise money for the arts, I was lectured by a young corporate executive in charge of foundation giving. As I tried to extol the virtues of the arts, she raised up her right hand and said with authority: “There are must-haves like food and shelter.”  With her left hand raised, she countered: ”Then there are the nice-to-haves, like the arts.” So, it has come to that—a struggle between the must-haves and the nice-to-haves. Someone please ask: Can man live on bread alone? During the past several years, we have become accustomed to the airing of Russian agitated rhetoric in our media and our discourse. Can American embrace the pursuit of happiness as something more than wealth that is worth preserving?  Or, as Winston Churchill once said during World War II: “What are we fighting for?”