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.


  1. I’m right there with you. I always think it’s silly when people play semantic word games, trying to simultaneously redefine a word to have some other (possibly related) meaning, and then act like they’ve made a remarkable insight.
    This is especially so, considering that if we discuss Aristotle’s thoughts on happiness, we’re discussing a completely different word altogether; not the English word “happiness”, but rather whatever Greek word Aristotle was ruminating about. I doubt most ancient Greek words have precise, perfectly corresponding equivalents in English.
    Perhaps if Darrin M. McMahon argued that people in olden times were more interested in virtue, and modern people are more interested in cuddly puppies, he’d have a topic worth discussing.

  2. Also,on the observation that in “olden times” it was “More about being good than feeling good”:
    how old definitions of *Happiness=Luck (Homeric), Happiness=Pleasure* weight? Not much I’m afraid.

  3. And tied into your point about the “average Greek”, it seems like this bumper-sticker summation has serious flaws in terms of who gets sampled. Every example is drawn from long-standing philosophical traditions except for the current definition. I’ve never read a paper arguing for the wonders of puppies.

  4. There may be something to the argument that in the ancient world “happiness” was something granted externally. Other European languages show a similar semantic shift – Lat. felix (lucky, succesful, happy) to Italian felice(happy). It does seem that there used to be a much stronger contrast in European culture between the concepts of “happiness” which was granted by external factors, and “joy” which was an internal emotional state. I don’t know Greek, but I think an average Roman who came into money was “felix” described by outside observers, but he probably felt “gavisus” inside. The semantic shift in “happiness” seems to be natural as English speakers put less emphasis on destiny and fate and more on individual achievement. Hence the external/internal distinction between “happy” and “glad” has faded.

  5. An excellent summation. Now I’m gavisus I asked.

  6. I wrote something about this before (here). Even leaving aside the issue of semantic shift over time, there is the further confusion between a agreement/disagreement over the semantics–i.e., plain mundane lexical semantics–of a term as opposed to a agreement/disagreement over more substantive claims about, say, happiness.
    For instance, even if (and that’s already a big if) eudaimonia is semantically equivalent to our “happiness”, when Aristotle says that eudaimonia is “activity in accordance with excellence (or virtue)”, he is definitely not making a claim about the lexical semantics of the world. The discussion in the Nicomachean Ethics opens with question what “is the highest of all goods achievable by action”–the ultimate goal of human life, as it were? And the claim is precisely made that:
    Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy
    –in other words, everybody knows what eudaimonia/happiness means (lexically). But, as he goes on to say,
    but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth, or honour; they differ, however, from one another, and often even the same man identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor; but, conscious of their ignorance, they admire those who proclaim some great ideal that is above their comprehension.
    It is in the context of that latter substantive disagreement–which presupposes a (relative) agreement on the lexical semantics of the word “happiness/eudaimonia” that Aristotle proposes that eudaimonia is “activity in accordance with excellence (or virtue)”, and in so doing, he thus disagrees with those who think that happiness consists in pleasure, wealth, or honour, etc.

  7. Ian Myles Slater says

    I don’t think you missed anything. The reviewer’s argument is facile, at best; and you are right to assume that he is arguing from a conventional translation with inherent problems. Those who have pointed out that Aristotle is not “the average Greek” are certainly right; and he sometimes used Greek words in what may have been unexpected ways.
    There seems to be a long tradition of translating Greek *eudaimonia* into English as “happiness,” and perhaps an equally long tradition of complaining about it; particularly when it turns up in philosophical works in which it is an important subject, not just stray vocabulary.
    For example, “happiness” shares a semantic transition from “external good fortune” to “internal state” which can be seen in the Greek “having a good *daimon*” being turned into less mythical-seeming statements about the condition of enjoying good fortune. So far good enough. It is a longer step to Aristotle’s argument that *eudaimonia* is “the highest good” and “the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue,” especially contemplation. In translation this often makes Aristotle in particular very hard to follow, and sometimes trivial-sounding, or bizarre, as he explains the “real nature” and source of this “happiness.”
    The problem is, e.g., briefly rehearsed in Sarah Broadie’s introduction to “Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics,” translated by Christopher Rowe (Oxford, 2002), and at greater length in Jonathan Barnes’ introduction to 2004 edition of Hugh Tredennick’s revision of the J.A.K. Thomson translation in Penguin Classics (formerly as “Aristotle: Ethics,” now “Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics”). (Broadie of course returns to the problems in her Commentary to Rowe’s translation, but in all cases Aristotle’s reasoning, rather than translation issues, is her main focus.)
    I mention these treatments, not as especially comprehensive or authoritative, but because, as the most recent considerations I have at hand, they show that the translation problem is still current.

  8. Tom Ashbrook had Darrin M. McMahon on On Point (NPR radio show) a couple of weeks ago. While listening to it I got the feeling I was hearing some sort of free association around the word happiness rather than a history of the concept or a history of the word. It was not one of Ashbrook’s better shows and I definitely did not feel an urge to run out and buy the book.
    A quick search of WBUR’s archives reveals it was the January 30th show. (http://www.onpointradio.org/shows/2006/01/20060130_b_main.asp)

  9. I personally would love to read Immanuel Kant’s proof of the wonderfulness of puppies.

  10. I was talking with a Korean-American friend a couple weeks ago, and he brought up that the Korean word for happy is a borrowing from English, and that there were some cultural issues around the concept of happiness. It’s more complicated than I remember well enough to relate here, but there might well be cultural issues around happiness that transcend linguistics.

  11. Isn’t this just all Saussure? It’s the signifieds that have shifted, not the signifiers….

  12. I’d like to see a similar plotting of a more concrete word/definition evolution, to point up the pointlessness of the original happy=xxx series. For instance coat=(description of what coat has meant.) Uh-huh, yup, words change, especailly from one language to another over time. But does it necessarily mean a linear change in attitude and beliefs?

  13. I’ve always thought happiness in common usage could mean the ephemeral happy and the meaning in terms of a deeper state of wellbeing.
    I don’t think there’s necessarily a contradiction in saying “I’m happy yet I’m not happy,” because one happy signifies the joyous and temporary state, and the other the more permanent and deeper.
    English perhaps needs the estar and ser distinction of portuguese and spanish to make this clearer in common usage, but a distinction between the two meanings I’ve always encountered.
    That being said, the author’s semantic history of the happy is both wrong and nothing more than trivia.
    He seems to be confusing the way to attain a state of happiness (in the deeper sense) with the actual meaning of the term. Happiness has never meant virtue or heaven or pleasure. Instead these supposed meanings of the term happiness were what was proposed as a way to attain that longed for state of being.
    And as most people have already noted, semantic shifts have occurred constantly, and basing any social point around that is exceptionally superficial.
    (The youth of the USA’s employment of the term bad to mean good is surely not a sign of progress, and comes to show the decay in moral virtue throughout the community)

  14. And why is the author’s name spelt Darrin?
    Reminds me of the pain I feel seeing people spell their names Jared (which I always pronounce in my head as a rhyme of spared).

  15. A more useful method would be to look at how different cultures (evolvoing over time) dissected the same semantic ‘field’ in different ways. For instance, Russian makes a difference between счастливый and довольный, while in English ‘happy’ combines both (even if there is also ‘content’). This is not just a semantic nuance, but also a conceptual one.

  16. Well anyway, the Liverpool Four in my speakers are sure that “happiness is a warm gun” 🙂

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