Last Sunday’s NY Times book section has a review by Jim Holt of Darrin M. McMahon’s Happiness: A History that begins as follows:
The history of the idea of happiness can be neatly summarized in a series of bumper sticker equations: Happiness=Luck (Homeric), Happiness=Virtue (classical), Happiness=Heaven (medieval), Happiness=Pleasure (Enlightenment) and Happiness=A Warm Puppy (contemporary). Does that look like progress? Darrin McMahon doesn’t think so.
In olden times, McMahon observes in his engaging book, happiness was deemed a transcendent, almost godlike state, attainable only by the few. Today, however, the concept has become democratized, not to say vulgarized (think of that damned ubiquitous smiley face): it is more about feeling good than being good…
Now, maybe I’m missing something obvious (semantics was never my specialty), but what sense does it make to say that the concept of happiness has changed? We don’t say that the concept of silliness has changed because silly (or its earlier form seely) once meant ‘Happy, blissful; fortunate, lucky, well-omened, auspicious’ or ‘Spiritually blessed, enjoying the blessing of God,’ then ‘Innocent, harmless,’ then ‘Deserving of pity, compassion, or sympathy,’ ‘Helpless, defenceless,’ ‘Weak, feeble, frail; insignificant, trifling,’ ‘Unlearned, unsophisticated, simple, rustic, ignorant,’ and finally the modern ‘Lacking in judgement or common sense; foolish, senseless, empty-headed.’ We say that the word has changed meaning, that the semantic space once occupied by seely/silly is now occupied by other words like lucky or harmless while silly has gone on to occupy a different one.
Why is the situation of happy/happiness not parallel? Happy is from hap ‘chance, fortune’ and therefore originally meant ‘lucky, fortunate; favoured by lot, position, or other external circumstance’; the fact that it has shifted over the centuries to the meaning ‘glad, pleased’ says nothing about changing concepts of happiness, only about the changing semantics of the word. And ancient Greek philosophy seems even less relevant; does anyone seriously think that because Aristotle wrote about virtue, your average Greek did not feel what we call “happy” when he unexpectedly came into money or his harvest was abundant or someone else bought the drinks? It seems to me there is serious confusion here about words and meanings. But as I say, I’m no expert in this area, and I welcome the thoughts of others.