Happiness: just what is it?

At the beginning of a new year, a new job, a new relationship there will often be an accompanying wish for happiness.
Happiness becomes a mantra for fulfilment. For contentment. For success.

How did ‘Happiness’ get into our lexicon?

The arrival was fairly straightforward; the path to its current meaning was less so. The root of our word comes on a direct line from Old Norse, Proto-Germanic, and Old Danish words.
I have attempted to show these in the grid below:


Old Norse
Old Danish

chance, good fortune, good luck
heppinn, happ


fitting, convenient,
to happen, to occur
happa, heppa
hampa, hampijana

  • many of the words in the grid use diacritic marks that I cannot replicate
  • this is a very basic explanation that does not aim to replace detailed study

In Old English (c 5th – 12th C) ‘gehaep’ was used in the sense of ‘to happen’, but this was changing by the Middle English period (c 1150-1500). By the end of the fourteenth century Middle English words “happyn” and “happen” were being used in the sense of being fortunate or that things had turned out well; there was also the notion of being ‘very glad’ about events. From around 1520 the meaning widened to include being “greatly pleased and content”.
Examples from Shakespeare plays, written around the end of the 1500s, illustrate how broad the meaning could be:

  • Romeo and Juliet: His help to crave and my dear hap to tell (fate)
  • Love’s Labour’s Lost: Rosaline, by good hap (luck)
  • Othello: tell my lord and lady what hath happed (happened)
  • Twelfth Night: What else may hap to time I will commit (happen)
  • Henry VI, part 3: See … a hapless father’s tears (unlucky)
  • Measure for Measure: Happily, You something know (perhaps)
  • Othello: And lo, the happiness! (good fortune)
  • Romeo and Juliet: Thy Juliet is alive … There art thou happy (fortunate)
  • Love’s Labour’s Lost: They did not bless us with one happy word (fitting)

Of the various meanings used by Shakespeare only ‘unlucky’ would be readily recognised today, as in ‘a hapless fool’. There is also a similar nuance in ‘a happy coincidence’ by which we would understand that the event was ‘fortunate’ rather than ‘giving pleasure’.

How do we view and evaluate ‘happiness’?

I’ll begin with the entry in Wikipedia: “Happiness is used in the context of mental or emotional states, including positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. It is also used in the context of life satisfaction, subjective well-being, eudaimonia, flourishing and well-being.”

Going right back to c.350 BCE the Greek philosopher Aristotle was writing about happiness as a state of being over which the individual has autonomy. Ultimately it was happiness ‘of the soul’ attained by living well: competently (capably or proficiently), morally (caring for the well-being of others), and fortunately (enjoying a pleasant life). For more in-depth discussion read Edith Hall’s brilliant book Aristotle’s Way.

About four years ago I bought ‘Happier at Home’ by Gretchen Rubin, author of the blockbuster bestseller ‘The Happiness Project’. The blurb told me that I needed this book to make my life happier and that I would be led along the path by one of ‘the most influential and thought-provoking observers of happiness’. (quotation taken from Ms Rubin’s website). Chapter One on ‘possessions’ was everything I’d hoped for; I even bought a special book to make notes. Chapter Two was on marriage. Not everyone who wants to be happier at home is married. And definitely not in her narrow terms. Oh well, I thought, can’t dismiss it because of that. I read on and my misgivings grew. She was advocating improving a relationship based on her own personal findings after a conscious determination to increase ‘thanking’, ‘praising’, ‘rewarding’ her husband. I stopped reading and used my time more wisely: by spending precious moments enjoying my husband’s company.

What children say about happiness:

‘You can’t buy things to make you happy.’

‘Happy is the whole world as friends.’

‘Happiness is if you give it away.’

‘Happiness is a warm feeling in your tummy.’

taken from: I Wish you Happiness, edited by Helen Exley

My money’s on Aristotle and the wisdom of children. Happiness is up to you. You can feel it, you can give it to others. Like all good things it takes working at. It also feeds on the acceptance that it won’t always be there; it’s not a permanent state of mind; it’s not merely possessions; it’s not determined by external forces. It begins with you and ends with you. It’s about experiences not excesses; people not possessions.

“Happiness is not having less; it is not having more; it is wanting what you have.”

What are your thoughts on happiness? Is there something/someone in your life guaranteed to make you happy? Is happiness important to you?

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