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3/29/11

Happiness Isn't What It Used To Be


Do you want to be happy? Then focus on making other people happy. That is one finding in the new field of happiness research.

From Ancient times to modern, the dominant Christian worldview has been that happiness is not something we can obtain in this life. It comes in an afterlife, or we are sent to Hell. This life is itself a vale of tears.

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.

Happenstance, something due to chance, exemplifies the English connection of the word to luck.

Today we think of happiness as a right and a skill that can be developed--certainly not due to random chance."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.

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.

What does this linguistic pattern suggest? For a good many ancient peoples—and for many others long after that—happiness was not something you could control. It was in the hands of the gods."

Not so today. More

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