Jeremy Barofsky (Public Health & Economics, The Brookings Institution)

Milena Nikolova (Public Policy & International Development, Institute for the Study of Labor).

Carol Graham (PI) (Economics, The Brookings Institution, University of Maryland)

Richard Reeves (Philosophy, The Brookings Institution, George Washington University)

The U.S. Declaration of Independence guarantees the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all citizens. These promises are not about guaranteed outcomes, but about opportunities to seek fulfilling lives. They are grounded in history and philosophy, beginning with Aristotle. His concept of happiness—eudemonia— is not about contentment, but about having sufficient means to be able to seek purpose or meaning in life. Jefferson’s concept of the pursuit of happiness was also influenced by the liberalism of John Stuart Mill, which combines notions of individual freedom and societal fairness (Malouf, 2011; Reeves, 2007). These promises are the basis of the American Dream, with its focus on individual initiative and opportunity.

Yet there is increasing debate about the extent to which that Dream - and the right to the pursuit of happiness - is equally available to all citizens. U.S. trends in opportunity and in distributional outcomes are becoming more unequal by any number of measures. Is the ability to pursue happiness as unequally shared as income? Do attitudes about future opportunities (which are closely linked to happiness and to optimism) affect individual choices about investments in the future and resulting outcomes? Are increasing sectors of U.S. society simply living in the moment, without the opportunity to seek better and more fulfilling lives as in Jefferson’s concept of happiness? How does the U.S. compare to global patterns in well-being inequality?

Brookings’s Senior Fellow Carol Graham proposes a project entitled: Inequality in Agency, Optimism, and the Pursuit of Happiness. This interdisciplinary research effort will explore how and why individuals have differential capacities to pursue well-being in its fullest sense, encompassing hedonic, evaluative, and eudemonic dimensions. Individuals’ capacities to pursue well-being across these dimensions are influenced by factors such as human capital endowments, innate character traits, the socio-economic environment, and social norms.