Right to Property and Pursuit of Happiness: Work

The Happiness Factor of Work

The Happiness Factor of Work

 A Civilizing Force

Maybe the greatest civilizing force in society today is that most of us have to get up five days a week, take a shower, put on something presentable, if not exactly fashionable, and go to a job where, for a minimum of eight hours, we are expected to be better people than we really are in exchange for a paycheck and a dose of self-respect…or we work. 
We all complain, of course, about having to go to work, about the cruelly inverse nature of the ratio of weekdays to weekends, about racing rats and climbing over bodies to get to the top of the corporate heap, but let’s be honest for a second about what work really means to each of us blessed enough to having something productive to do with our lives.

Work gives us a sense of worth, an appreciation of our value to society.  

It gives us a way to measure ourselves against our peers, either by comparing the size of our paychecks or by seeing the resulting good our labors do for others.  Through the thing that makes us get up in the morning and leave the house with pants on, we feel like we are, at the least, pulling our own weight, taking care of ourselves, making progress, doing something worth doing.  Maybe we aren’t living our childhood dreams of being a firefighter or an astronaut or pastry chef (don’t judge), but, by and large, we are happy to have something to do that makes a difference.

Okay, sure, we do sort of hate our jobs.  In fact, Forbes in 2014 claimed that 52.3% of Americans were unhappy in their jobs with, not surprisingly, lower-paid workers less happy than higher-paid ones (24.4% vs. 64.1%).

But, the happiness of employed people was off the charts compared to that of those who were unemployed.  

The Happiness Report

The Harvard Business Review, citing the World Happiness Report, determined that people not actively employed experienced 30% more negative emotions each day than those in the work force.  

Harvard described unemployment as “destructive to people’s well-being” and offered that the paycheck isn’t what makes a worker happier than a person who has no job. Instead, it is the labor itself. 

The importance of having a job extends far beyond the salary attached to it. A large stream of research has shown that the non-monetary aspects of employment are also key drivers of people’s well-being. Social status, social relations, daily structure, and goals all exert a strong influence on people’s happiness.

Not only are the unemployed generally unhappier than those in work, we find in our analyses that people generally do not adapt over time to becoming unemployed. 

More than this, spells of unemployment also seem to have a scarring effect on people’s well-being, even after they have regained employment.”


Sophocles said, “Without labor, nothing prospers.”    

His point was that it is the act of work, the labor and effort involved in doing something productive, that provides value to the doer.  Even more than the paycheck, the sense of accomplishment that accompanies a job done well is the reward of work.  

So, imagine what we do to people when we take the gift of productive labor away from them.  Imagine what life without constructive contribution is like for those living it, for people who get up in the morning and have nothing compelling ahead of them.  
I am not suggesting that people who are unemployed live meaningless lives.   They may very well have many other ways in which they contribute greatly to those around them, to their communities and civic organizations. Certainly, stay-at-home parents and caregivers perform jobs that contribute greatly to society, often in ways that can’t be expressed in simple financial terms.  We, as a society, value these people greatly, not only for the work they do, but for the lasting legacy they leave.

Defined by what we “do”

 But we live in a country where many of us define ourselves by what we “do,” meaning what occupation we hold from which we draw our income.  Depriving someone of a job, of the ability to spend time constructively in return for c
ompensation for their labors, takes from them the ability to claim a role, a contribution, to society.  When asked what they “do,” they aren’t able to say, “I do this.”  Instead, they say, “I am unemployed.”

For those Americans whose time on unemployment has led them to where they have no choice but to ask the government for assistance, for those for whom welfare is the only option, the loss of status is the greatest.  For these people, the cycle of dependence on government assistance can become a trap.

When help becomes a trap

The reality is that most people on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Food Stamps do work, but, for many, especially those in the most economically depressed areas, the work that is available doesn’t pay enough to feed, clothe and house families.  This is why many low-wage earners are forced to go on some sort of government assistance program.  
Unfortunately, for many, entering into public assistance programs can become a trap from which escaping is very difficult. In fact, according to the Urban League, 22% of people who go off assistance eventually go back on.  And while most (56%) get off within three years, according to The Huffington Post, nearly half the American population lives in a household where at least one resident gets some sort of government assistance.  

Furthering the trap

 Currently, those dependent on welfare who are trying to leave programs for jobs lose program benefits that are often greater than the paychecks they receive for the work they do.   Under current welfare laws, if a single mother on welfare marries a man who earns low wages, she loses her benefits and he is penalized financially for taking a wife and child into his family.  It should be noted that the poverty rate for female-headed households with children is six times greater than for married couples with children.   That is, the government is incentivizing people not to work and also incentivizing mothers to stay on assistance or men to forego marriage.  

 Work, Property Rights and Freedom

Our Founders made property rights a requirement for freedom.  The American Founders spoke of having a right to property and to work to own property as essential to freedom.In Federalist 54, James Madison stated tersely: “Government is instituted no less for the protection of the property than of the persons of individuals.”

As Madison later elaborated, property rights are as important as personal rights because the two are intimately connected.

The right to labor and acquire property is itself an important personal right and entitled to government protection; and the property acquired through the exercise of this personal right is entitled, by derivation, to an equal protection. (emphasis added)

As he put it in his “Address at the Virginia Convention”:

It is sufficiently obvious, that persons and property are the two great subjects on which Governments are to act; and that the rights of persons, and the rights of property, are the objects, for the protection of which Government was instituted. These rights cannot well be separated. The personal right to acquire property, which is a natural right, gives to property, when acquired, a right to protection, as a social right.

The importance of work to Americans as human beings and citizens contributing to their own success, property and to the nation, as a whole, is significant and our Founders were wise to place value on work as part of a right to property.   While a “right to work” is not explicitly stated, it is argued that a right to property with no right of government to seize property without adequate compensation, is inherently part of a citizen’s right to work.   The “pursuit of happiness” noted in founding documents is another nod to a citizen’s right to work to pursue property and happiness and prosperity that may come from the fruits of labor.

As Edmund Morgan wrote in The Birth of the Republic, the

“widespread ownership of property is perhaps the most important single fact about Americans of the Revolutionary period. . . . Standing on his own land with spade in hand and flintlock not far off, the American could look at his richest neighbor and laugh.”


Tony Wyman
About Tony Wyman 8 Articles
About this author: Tony Wyman ~ became a conservative at 15 years of age after meeting Ronald Reagan in 1976. Ten years later, it was President Reagan's signature that commissioned Wyman as an officer in the United States Air Force. During his time in the Air Force, he spent time in The Philippines, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Tony has five children, one for each dog in the family, and was recently made a grandfather to a lovely granddaughter. In addition to serving in the Air Force, Wyman was a newspaper reporter, a political consultant and speech writer, and put in more than 20 years in home construction and the safety industry. He also lists on his resume that he was the official mascot of a blue jean company which, still to this day, is the best job he's ever held."

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