I think it is probably fair to assume that most Americans today consider happiness not only something that would be nice to have, but something that we really ought to have—and, moreover, something that’s within our power to bring about, if only we set our minds to it. We can be happy, we tell ourselves, teeth gritted. We should be happy. We will be happy.
That is a modern article of faith. But it is also a relatively recent idea in the West which dates from the 17th and 18th centuries, a time that ushered in a dramatic shift in what human beings could legitimately hope to expect in and from their lives. People prior to the late 17th century thought happiness was a matter of luck or virtue or divine favor. Today we think of happiness as a right and a skill that can be developed. This has been liberating, in some respects, because it asks us to strive to improve our lots in life, individually and collectively. But there have been downsides as well. It seems that when we want to be happy all of the time, we can forget that the pursuit of happiness can entail struggle, sacrifice, even pain.
Roots of happiness
Language reveals ancient definitions of happiness. It is a striking fact that in every Indo-European language, without exception, going all the way back to ancient Greek, the word for happiness is a cognate with the word for luck. Hap is the Old Norse and Old English root of happiness, and it just means luck or chance, as did the Old French heur, giving us bonheur, good fortune or happiness. German gives us the word Gluck, which to this day means both happiness and chance.
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