I once saw a T-shirt with the caption “Happiness is a fragment of your imagination!” Happiness today is defined as a “state of well-being characterized by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy“.Our original understanding was more complex, nuanced, and pragmatic.
Over ensuing centuries, these associated meanings for happiness’ changed in keeping with the West’s overarching worldview and ethos. For example, ‘silly’ originally meant ‘happy’.
For example, ‘Hap’ in the Old English of the 1300s meant ‘fortune or chance’. This basic link between happiness and luck is found in most northern European languages of that time. Yet, happiness was also associated with two other related emotional states – beatitude and blitheness. The first is defined as “perfect happiness and inner peace” and stems from the Latin beatus. The second term means, “having a casual and cheerful indifference to convention and rules”. Bliss is yet another related term. Over ensuing centuries, these associated meanings for happiness’ changed in keeping with the West’s overarching worldview and ethos. For example, ‘silly’ originally meant ‘happy’. It stems from the Latin ‘solari’, meaning ‘to comfort’ and ‘salvus’ meaning ‘whole and safe’. Over the course of six hundred years its meaning devolved from: “blessed to pious, to innocent (1200), to harmless, to pitiable (c.1280), to weak (c.1300), to feeble in mind, lacking in reason, foolish (1576)” (www.etymonline.com).
It’s interesting to consider the continuum of emotional states associated with happiness. Of course, sheer good luck is a common factor. Anthropological research indicates that the reason most of us can’t resist sweets is because of primal hard wiring. In the long millennia before civilization, our hardy nomadic ancestors rarely encountered sweets like honey. They therefore happily gorged on their good luck knowing it would be a long time until they discovered more. Yet our ancestors also came to understand that the more enduring type of happiness doesn’t depend on blind luck but on an inner attitude.
The ancient link between happiness, wholeness, and solace is especially resonant today given recent global events. Interestingly, contemporary happiness research bears out what past generations readily understood.
On Creating Happiness
Two centuries ago, the United States was founded on the ideal that the pursuit of happiness is a human right. The Statue of Liberty with its torch held high perhaps best symbolizes this enduring aspiration for those seeking the American Dream, even now despite current prevailing political winds.
In The How of Happiness, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky explores the relation between intentional activity and happiness. Research shows there are simple and proven ongoing ways to enhance happiness. These include counting one’s blessings, performing kind acts, and seeing negative situations in a positive light. Circumstantial happiness, in contrast, is dependent on external factors, which often we have no direct control over as recent events sadly show.
The idea of intentional happiness is similar to the ‘broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions’ first formulated by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson in 1998. This holds that positive emotions and intentions help broaden awareness. And this helps encourage new exploration, creativity, and social bonds. Positive emotions are seen as expansive and inclusive. Negative emotions are linked directly to narrow survival-oriented behaviours such as flight or fight.
Although daunting, remaining positive within the midst of adversity has great benefit. Finding intrinsic meaning and value in such experiences helps transmute their painful impacts. It also provides a powerful basis for profound growth and transformation. This can hold true especially for the hundreds of thousands of people being laid off. often from long-held positions. Many will believe they have no other skills or are too old to learn new ones.
In a 2003 article in American Scientific, The Value of Positive Emotions, Dr. Fredrickson wrote –
“It seems that positive emotions do more than simply feel good in the present. The undoing effect suggests that positive emotions can reduce the physiological “damage” on the cardiovascular system sustained by feeling negative emotions. But some other research suggests that there’s more to it than that. It appears that experiencing positive emotions increases the likelihood that one will feel good in the future. Positive meaning can be obtained by finding benefits within adversity, by infusing ordinary events with meaning and by effective problem-solving. You can find benefits in a grim world, for instance, by focusing on the new-found strengths and resolve within yourself and others. You can infuse ordinary events with meaning by expressing appreciation, love, and gratitude, even for simple things. And you can find positive meaning through problem-solving by supporting compassionate acts toward people in need. So, although the active ingredient within growth and resilience may be positive emotions, the leverage point for accessing these benefits is finding positive meaning.”