There are a few phrases that the average American can rattle off from memory. One of the most iconic may be “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — the rights that all people deserve, according to Thomas Jefferson. Though many of us know this phrase by heart, we may rarely give it a second thought. However, it can offer a uniquely American way of thinking about the importance of personal well-being and mental health.
After all, poor mental health can make it difficult for us to seek happiness in our lives. It can constrict our freedoms by distorting our thoughts. In some cases, it can even be a threat to life. Maintaining good mental health can have positive impacts on our life, liberty, and happiness. Working with a therapist can be helpful in achieving this goal.
Mental Health And American Life
The right to exist without fear of losing your life is the very first right discussed in America’s Declaration of Independence. However, many things can make life much more difficult to safeguard. One of those things may be mental illness.
Researchers estimate that, on average, people with severe mental disorders die 10 to 20 years earlier than the general population. The exact reasons aren’t definitively known yet, but there’s some evidence that chronic diseases can be a major factor. There are a variety of reasons why those with psychological disorders may be more likely to have physical illnesses, including long-term stress, difficulty maintaining healthy habits, or weight gain induced by medication.
Another possible risk factor is suicide. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, suicide is the 12th-leading cause of death among Americans, and a significant percentage of those who die by suicide have diagnoses or symptoms of mental health conditions.
There are resources available to help. You can reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 if you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm. In addition, mental health treatment may increase your lifespan by helping you make healthier lifestyle choices and adhere to productive habits.
While nearly half of Americans may receive the mental health treatment they deserve, surveys suggest that over half of Americans with mental health disorders don’t receive treatment. Barriers such as cost, limited numbers of care providers, and stigma around psychological illness can prevent many people from getting the help they need. Ensuring that Americans have a right to life may require improving the availability of mental health treatment.
Mental Health And American Liberty
Freedom can be trickier to define than many people might think. However, most people agree that it includes the right to make choices for yourself, assuming that they don’t infringe on other people’s ability to do the same. Many mental health conditions can interfere with a person’s ability to make decisions freely and live the life of their choosing.
The limitations that mental illness can place on personal freedom may have long been recognized in the psychological community. The fourth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders mentioned “an important loss of freedom” in its definition of a mental disorder. One of the ways a person can recognize that their emotional or cognitive difficulties have gone beyond the normal ups and downs of life is if they are significantly restricting their liberty.
- Symptoms making it difficult to engage in desired activities
- Lack of energy and stamina interfering with goals
- Difficulty maintaining focus, restricting the ability to learn and succeed
- Impairment of executive function — i.e., the ability to plan, prioritize, make decisions, and control impulses
Mental illness may also contribute to the loss of personal liberty by increasing the likelihood of incarceration or involuntary commitment to a psychiatric institution. Research has repeatedly found that having a major mental illness can significantly increase a person’s risk of serving jail time. While in some cases, this may be related to an increased likelihood of engaging in illegal behavior, the linked study indicates that legal authorities may also be more likely to imprison someone for a crime if that person has a mental disorder. Reducing the stigma of mental illness and working for greater fairness in sentencing may help ensure that people with psychological difficulties have the freedom they deserve.
Mental Health And The American Pursuit Of Happiness
If mental disorders can impact a person’s health and freedom, they can also affect that person’s ability to seek happiness. Some mental health conditions are at least partly defined by the absence of feelings of well-being, or the persistent presence of negative emotions, including:
- Depression, marked by feelings that can vary “from unhappiness and discontent to an extreme feeling of sadness, pessimism, and despondency”.
- Borderline personality disorder, which can involve extreme mood fluctuations, insecurity about self-worth, and “chronic feelings of emptiness and boredom”.
- Generalized anxiety disorder, a condition typically defined by extreme, persistent feelings of worry or fear.
- Panic disorder, in which the high frequency of panic attacks and the fear of having panic attacks can cause a significant amount of psychological distress.
Other disorders may not directly affect happiness, but can still make it difficult to pursue. For instance, a person with a substance use disorder might harm their relationships or engage in self-destructive behavior due to their excessive use of intoxicants. And some people whose mental conditions damage their self-image may not believe they “deserve to be happy,” which could make it harder to motivate themselves to seek out ways to improve their lives.
How Mental Health Can Depend On Life, Liberty, And The Pursuit Of Happiness
Life, liberty, and happiness can be impacted by mental health, but the effects can also flow the other way:
- Extreme danger to a person’s life can result in posttraumatic stress disorder
- Poor physical health can contribute to emotional and cognitive dysfunction
- Loss of liberty due to incarceration often has negative mental health effects and may even cause mood disorders
- Being repeatedly prevented from seeking happiness by others might lead to anxiety, depression, or other psychological difficulties
This suggests that efforts to safeguard life, liberty, and the ability to pursue happiness might help to improve mental health overall. Safer, freer, happier people may be much less likely to develop severe difficulties with their emotions and thoughts.
What Does This Mean For Your Life?
Though much of the above discussion has focused on American society as a whole, it may have important implications for your personal well-being. Taking steps to improve your own life, liberty, and happiness may improve your mental health — and vice-versa.
Paying attention to your physical health and safety could be crucial for your psychological stability. Adopting a regular exercise regimen may help prevent or reduce the symptoms of a surprising range of mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance use disorder, and even schizophrenia. Making regular visits to a doctor could lower your likelihood of developing an illness that might trigger mental health problems.
Your liberty may rely to some extent on your mental health, but achieving a greater sense of freedom could also help you become psychologically healthier. Studies suggest that people with a strong belief in their ability to affect what happens to them may be less prone to depression and other mental illnesses. Techniques such as positive affirmations and visualizations may help you reinforce your belief in your freedom to influence your life.
Pursuit Of Happiness
It may be worth examining your life to see if there are persistent sources of unhappiness that you can change. This may be very beneficial to your mental well-being in the long run. On the other hand, expecting yourself to be happy all the time could be counterproductive. There’s a fair amount of evidence that suppressing negative emotions can strengthen distressing feelings such as anxiety. A better approach might be to focus on living according to your core values, pursuing the things that give you the greatest sense of meaning in your life.
Therapy May Improve Your Life, Liberty, And Pursuit Of Happiness
Achieving greater well-being is often much easier with support from a licensed therapist or counselor. An experienced mental health professional can offer advice and guidance on developing better strategies for changing your behavior and reaching your goals.
If you’re uncertain about therapy, online counseling can often be a good way to get started. Many people find it easier to talk with a therapist over the internet than in person. Engaging in therapy through your personal device, from inside your own home, can provide a sense of control and familiarity that may make talking about your psychological difficulties seem less intimidating.
Though you might be skeptical about engaging in therapy through text or video chat, research indicates that it’s generally just as effective as more traditional approaches. An analysis of past studies including more than 10,000 total participants concluded that “there was no difference in effectiveness” between face-to-face therapy and sessions conducted online. Internet-based therapy can be a convenient, cost-effective, and valuable tool.
Why are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness the most important?
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of solid happiness are often considered the most important because they represent inalienable rights granted to all democratic citizens. At its founding, the United States existed in a tumultuous period of world history, long before a global understanding of which rights were inherent in all people. Today, the term “inalienable rights” is considered roughly synonymous with “human rights.”
The founders of the United States considered a foundation based on human rights (which, at the time, did not apply equally to all people) to be necessary when designing a new country. They considered the rights to life, freedom (liberty), and eudaimonia (a fulfilling life) as foundational principles upon which the United States should be based.
How are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness protected?
The United States Constitution protects the principles espoused by its founders. The U.S. Constitution describes how the government is structured and how it operates. It was ratified in 1787, over a decade after the United States first sought to become an independent nation and remove itself from the rule of Great Britain. Just a few after the Constitution was ratified, it received its first ten amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights.
Both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights protect the founding principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Constitution establishes checks and balances between government branches, as well as between the federal and state governments. The Bill of Rights explicitly outlines legal protections granted to United States citizens with which the government may not interfere.
For example, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and the right to assemble in protest. It also enshrines religious freedoms for United States citizens. Other amendments in the Bill of Rights protect citizens from unreasonable search and seizure, guarantee a right to trial by jury, and prohibit cruel punishments. The purpose of the Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments - there are 27 as of 2023 - is to codify restrictions on the government that prevent governmental institutions from restricting a citizen’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
Are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness inalienable rights?
The founders of the United States declared life, liberty, and the constant pursuit of happiness to be unalienable, self-evident rights guaranteed to all. The way in which the founders used “inalienable rights” means roughly the same thing as “human rights.” Of course, when the country was founded, those rights generally applied only to white men who owned property.
Today, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - as well as other human rights - are considered natural rights, which are not dependent on laws, customs, government, or cultural norms. According to the philosophical field of natural law, ethically and morally sound laws cannot violate human rights, making them universal and inalienable.
How to use life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in a sentence?
You can use the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to describe inalienable human rights guaranteed to everyone. It is often used in the United States as a motto, similar to France’s “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” You can use “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to refer to the founding principles of the United States. It is a phrase that exemplifies the ideal to which the American people strive.
Is it possible for a society to achieve equality without liberty?
Scholars have frequently discussed the complicated interaction between equality and liberty in society. Liberty is typically used interchangeably with “freedom.” Equal treatment in one domain may restrict freedom, while a rigid adherence to liberty may hinder equality.
Balancing liberty and equality is a complex and nuanced task that is highly dependent on a society’s demographics, cultural norms, and governmental influence. Consider the former Soviet Union, a society that rigidly enforced equality at the expense of liberty. Many would consider the restriction on freedom to be a violation of human rights, placing equality above the natural right of all humans to pursue opportunities to thrive.
Conversely, liberty can be detrimental to equality. The freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution promises only that the government will not interfere with certain unalienable rights. However, this only guarantees opportunity, not success. The rights guaranteed to U.S. citizens promise the right to pursue happiness, but there is no guarantee that happiness will be achieved. The pursuit of happiness is inherently unequal, and there are likely situations in which equality should be artificially enforced. Which specific situations should have equality artificially introduced depends on numerous societal factors.
What is more important, freedom or happiness?
Benjamin Franklin once famously said: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” While he wasn’t speaking directly of happiness, modern research has confirmed that safety and security are crucial facets of individual happiness, meaning that many people may be willing to sacrifice some freedom to ensure safety.
Many restrictions on United States citizens' freedoms are in place to enforce safety and provide a framework for happiness. The liberty of Americans is not absolute; every member of society must follow the laws of their jurisdiction and comply with many social norms. Many people are aware of a famous, yet metaphorical, restriction on free speech: that it is illegal to falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater.
Freedom of speech is not absolute, and speech undertaken to cause panic, defraud others, or deliberately cause a safety risk is not protected by the First Amendment. In this case, citizens give up a small amount of liberty to ensure the well-being of others. It is difficult to say which is more important, freedom or happiness, because they overlap and intertwine in complex ways that can vary between situations.
Who believes in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
The concept of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was strongly endorsed by the founders of the United States. It is believed that Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the famous phrase, was influenced by the political writings of John Locke, a prolific 17th-century philosopher and political theorist. Locke wrote extensively on the meaning of happiness in Essay Concerning Human Understanding wrote that “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in the careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness.”
Similar Lockian views are apparent in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which defines inalienable rights in Virginia and later became the basis for the Bill of Rights. The Declaration states: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights…namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
The Declaration is thought to have heavily influenced Thomas Jefferson when he wrote the document declaring the United State’s intention to be an independent nation. The wide popularity of Lockian beliefs would eventually form much of the justification behind “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” at least of an intellectual nature.
Is “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the preamble?
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” appears in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence (DOI). It is commonly thought that the phrase appears in the Constitution and forms the legal basis of the United State’s laws. However, the phrase is only used in the DOI and does not represent legally binding language, instead representing the philosophical intentions of the country’s founders.
What is meant by “all men are created equal”?
Today, “all men are created equal” is thought to imply that every person has the same inalienable rights, namely the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, when Thomas Jefferson originally wrote the words in the 18th century, they had a more restricted meaning. At the time, the only people considered equal in the eyes of the government were white, land-owning men.
While the themes of equality and liberty espoused by the founders were certainly progressive for the time, it would be nearly a century before all men were seen as equal under the law and decades more before women received the same protections. Today, equality remains a hotly debated topic, indicating that equal protections are still evolving.
How does freedom allow us the opportunity to pursue happiness while ensuring our rights are protected at all times?
Happiness and liberty are held in a constant balance in the United States. Absolute freedom, where no restrictions are placed on the behavior of people or organizations, could potentially violate the rights of others. For example, if a person uses force to obtain a goal and hurts another person in the process, the injured person has had their right to safety violated. Therefore, protecting the rights of citizens likely comes down to restricting some freedoms.
Determining how to balance freedom and liberty is a considerable problem for governments, influenced by societal norms, pop culture, politics, and court precedents. The United States addresses this problem by enshrining certain rights that are nearly inviolable, such as freedom of religion. It addresses potential concerns on a case-by-case basis through the court system to ensure that freedoms are not utterly neglected.
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