One phrase associated with America’s Declaration of Independence—”the pursuit of happiness”—has long been something of a sticking point in any discussion of what our unalienable rights really are. Here, LIFE.com recalls a feature that ran in LIFE magazine seven long decades ago, when the editors convened a round table 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 engaging visual aspect of the feature—namely, 20 photographs, all of them made by one well-known LIFE photographer, that capture the face of happiness in many of its various guises. 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 within 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?