Modern Emotions: Happiness
The Surprising Newness of One of Our Most Craved Emotional Conditions
Posted May 2, 2013
Our Declaration of Independence includes the pursuit of happiness among the inalienable human rights, alongside life itself. It is so included because the founding fathers evidently assumed that such pursuit was a human universal of the most important, that human beings, in other words, have always and everywhere had the capacity for experiencing happiness and have been naturally drawn to it. The readers of this blog would, probably, agree with this assumption and it is quite likely that many would consider happiness the very purpose of human existence. And yet, this assumption is wrong. Happiness is a modern emotion. No one – no society, no language – had a concept of it before the 16th century, when the idea of happiness first appeared in England, and this means that it was inconceivable for people who lived before the 16th century and to those who lived outside of England even for some time after it. If it was inconceivable, it could hardly been experienced, and certainly could not be consciously desired and pursued. As to whether it could be felt, desired, and pursued unconsciously we cannot know, because for obvious reasons, we cannot have any evidence regarding this possibility.
The English word “happiness” was created in the 16th century. At that time it had no equivalent in any other language. The words in French, German, or Russian, with the help of which we translate it, specifically meant “good luck,” a concept that existed in English as well, the word for any kind of luck being “hap.” The idea of “good luck” itself went back to the pagan antiquity. From the eudemonia of the Ancient Greeks on, all the synonyms of it connoted the benevolence of fate. To experience good luck meant to be subject to such benevolence, to be “blessed.” Luck was an objective state, not an emotion. The Greek eudemonia, in fact, could not be experienced at all, one of its defining characteristics was an easy and honorable death, and it was impossible to say whether one was or was not subject to the benevolence of fate until one was dead.
Luck, good or bad, is completely outside of one’s control, therefore, one cannot blame oneself for not being lucky or take pride in one’s good luck. Jewish monotheism rejected the idea of luck, opposing to it a view of the world predicated on the concept of justice. Man became to a certain extent responsible for his own fate. Under the influence of Jewish monotheism, which began to spread sometime in the 6th century BCE, eudemonia was reinterpreted and could now be applied to actual experience. From our, modern, perspective, however, it was certainly not a happy experience. The word now referred to the acceptance of mortality. Because the task of philosophy was to prepare one for death, eudemonia became the goal of philosophy. Today, when we translate eudemonia as “happiness,” this leads to the misconception that happiness is the goal of philosophy. But, actually, the advice of the philosophy which pursued eudemonia was to live a life that, while free of actual suffering to the extent that was possible, would be so devoid of enjoyment that one would not regret leaving it when time comes – a sort of nirvana. Such life was considered the “good life,” and eudemonia became a name for it.
This interpretation was reinforced and at the same time further modified in the Christian thinking. “Good life” acquired the meaning of faith, in particular, the absolute faith in eternal life, which often sought to express itself actively. Therefore Christian felicity (a derivative from Latin for “luck” – felix, which we also wrongly translate as “happiness”) could be found in martyrdom, an especially painful death one chose to demonstrate how free of fear of death one was.
Happiness has nothing in common with the phenomena whose names are used to translate this utterly novel English experience into other languages. To start, it is a joyful and pleasant emotion. Of course, human beings, like animals, have always been familiar with the sensations of joy and pleasure. Happiness incorporates them but implies much more. Examine yourselves and you’ll recognize that the word refers to a lasting, profound, fully conscious feeling of satisfaction with one’s circumstances – the sense that one’s life fits one like a glove. This implies that one experiences existence as meaningful, feels there is a reason for being here and now, and that one has a firm and satisfactory identity. Above all, perhaps, happiness is experienced as an achievement. It is a conscious realization that one reaps the results of right choices.
It is an historical fact that for much of human history people could not be happy. This was not because the capacity for happiness did not exist, but because happiness the emotion did not exist. It was created at the dawn of modernity. In future posts I’ll discuss what exactly brought this new experience, so important in our emotional life today, into being. Perhaps the reader already begins to see what connects the modern emotions on which we focus: ambition, happiness, and love, together.
Liah Greenfeld is the author of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience