Happiness – A Brief History

I once saw a T-shirt with the captionHappiness 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)” (

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.”


Howard B. Esbin, PhD
My professional life spans the private sector, international development, philanthropic fundraising, and entrepreneurship. Part one, from 1973 – 1988, was spent in the jewellery industry. This included senior management roles in retail and manufacturing. Part two, from 1991 – 1997, involved consulting and senior manager roles in international development. The former included working in Kenya with the International Labour Organization, the Mennonite Central Committee, and the Royal Netherlands Government Embassy. This involved original field research and recommendations for youth entrepreneurship and artisans called Jua Kali. I also later oversaw a $3M fair-trade enterprise called Bridgehead owned by Oxfam Canada. Part three, from 1998 – 2004, saw me as a director of an annual, volunteer-driven philanthropic fundraising event, called HOPE Beachfest. This was the world’s largest one-day volleyball tourney (10,000 players) with an all-day rock concert (15,000 party-goers). Part four, from 2008 – 2018, involves my time as an entrepreneur developing and launching the Prelude Suite™. Additionally, from 1984 – 1998, I attended McGill University on a part-time basis earning three successive degrees culminating with a doctorate in education. My research examined how a carvers’ community transmitted its visual knowledge generationally, informally and non-verbally. Education Canada, the International Labour Organization, and UNESCO have also published my related writings.


  1. Thank you for this stroll through the history of happiness. I find that when I am at my happiness, silliness can be great fun. The history of the way silliness has been viewed makes me wonder if our ancestors didn’t experience deep levels of happiness more often.

    Today, we understand that Dr. Fredrickson’s “experiencing positive emotions increases the likelihood that one will feel good in the future” is true partially due to mood-congruent thought.

    We live in the best possible time to understand and to increase global happiness and well-being. I feel profoundly blessed to be alive at this time.

  2. A remarkable, thought-provoking and inspirational topic.
    I don’t believe there is a “recipe” for a happy life. Actually, every human being is born and grows with great expectations: the great love, a satisfying social life, a good job, a nice house, maybe a family with children, and of course a pet fond. Surely some parameters of “happiness” are quite fictitious, in the sense that from an early age the fantastic perfect world we dream comes to us by television, by advertising, by a kind of value system which, however, ends up influencing us.
    Actually, only down deep in our hearts we can get to find out what is important to us, which makes us feel in full harmony, balance, satisfied us.
    That said, there are also the common sense rules that allow us to increase our well-being, to maintain in terms of vitality our bodies and our minds for as long as possible, in some way happy!