Pursuing Happiness? Good Luck…


Yesterday, March 20, was the International Day of Happiness. (I hope you enjoyed yourself.) In recognition of this largely unknown fact, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network released it’s annual World Happiness Report, which names Norway (a nation whose chief cultural export is “Black Metal“) as the happiest nation on Earth. The United States comes in at a distant 14th.

Should we, the citizens of the United States, be worried about this? Pundits and professors say we should, as the reason for our declining happiness has been associated with “declining social support,” a “decline in trust” and “an increased sense of corruption.” Yet, etymologically speaking, it just so happens that happiness may be somewhat out of our control, so maybe we shouldn’t be too broken up about not being number one on the list.

What the hell am I talking about? I’ll explain, but before I do, let’s start (as we always do) with some definitions.

The (compact) Oxford English Dictionary defines happiness as:

1. Good fortune or luck in life or in a particular affair; success, prosperity
2. The state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from success or the attainment of what is considered good.
3. Successful or felicitous aptitude; fitness, suitability, or appropriateness; felicity.

By way of second opinion, the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, has the following to say about happiness:

1. Good fortune; luck
2. Pleasure; joy; contentment
3. Appropriateness

Surprised by the presence of words like “good fortune” and “luck” in these definitions? Perhaps you ought not. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, the word happiness, which comes from happy (duh), is rooted in the Middle English word hap, which means, you guessed it, “luck.” Hence the words haphazard, meaning “by accident or caused by chance,” and hapless, meaning “unfortunate or unlucky.”

The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins agrees, albeit in its usual, round-about way.

happy – The Old and Middle English word for happy was what in modern English has become silly. This began to change its meaning around the 15th century, and obviously an opportunity began to open up for an adjective expressing “contentment” (as opposed to positive “joy,” denoted by then glad, fain, and joyful.) The gap was partially filled by a weakening in the meaning of the word glad, but waiting in the wings was happy, a derivative of the noun hap “chance, luck” (source of happen), which, when it was coined in the 14th century, meant “lucky, fortunate, prosperous.” The main modern sense is “highly pleased or contented” developed in the early 16th century.

I’m not surprised that we modern humans have tried to separate happiness from luck, and now choose to view the former in terms of “pleasure, joy, or contentment.” Be it the air conditioning in our homes or the insurance on our very lives, we’ve gone to great lengths to eliminate chance from our lives. Why should our approach toward happiness be any different? We like to be in control, hence the assertion of Psychology Today that, “Researchers estimate that much of happiness is under personal control.”

But is it?

According to this article from NPR about the World Happiness Report, the global happiness researchers conducted their survey (in part) by inquiring as to whether people around the world “had family and friends to count on in times of trouble” and how they perceived “levels of freedom, generosity and trust — both in each other and in their governments and businesses.” I’m no expert, but it seems like luck could play a huge role in how a person might respond to such queries, particularly if he or she lives in one of the countries that came in toward the bottom of the rankings.

But back to happiness, luck, and the co-mingling of the two in the above definitions. While it might be unnerving, even unpleasant, to think that luck is a part of happiness, dictionaries don’t lie. They are mirrors of our language and, by extension, our minds, and deep down in each and every one of them, we know that (as British dramatist Tom Stoppard put it so eloquently) “Life is a gamble….”

No wonder the founding fathers afforded us “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”


1) While going through the ARL collection looking for books with entries on happiness, I discovered that none of the psychological references at my disposal had anything to say on the subject. I find that immensely interesting.

PS) The also lack entries for the word joy.

2) From the Dream Dictionary from A to Z:

“Dreams that leave you with lingering feelings of joy and exhilaration are less common than those that leave you with feelings of dread and uncertainty. This may be because there are always challenges and responsibilities to face in the real world, and your dreams tend to reflect your anxieties about meeting these challenges.”

If, however, you’ve had a joyful dream “and these senses and feeling mirror your feelings in waking life, then your dream was simply a reflection of your elation. If you had a joyful dream and your waking circumstances are far from ideal and you are feeling worried, anxious, or lacking in self-confidence, your unconscious may be trying to comfort and reassure you as a way of compensating you for your current unhappiness or misfortune. Your unconscious may also be trying to send you an important message that can help you boost your chances of happiness in waking life.”

3) I don’t know what causes humans to feel happy, but I have done some research on why people feel sad. You can read about that here.

Published by Joe3

Founder of the College Park Community and Butter Lamb Reference Libraries

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