The True Meaning of Happiness

What’s the haps on the ultimate pursuit? Ask the Vikings.

happy lady
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What does it mean to be “happy”?

Our Declaration of Independence, an absolute banger of a foundational document, famously lists “the pursuit of happiness” as one of our three inalienable rights—the only one complex enough to warrant an entire verbal clause. Unlike life and liberty, which are fixed qualities, our Founding Fathers seemed to think of happiness as something to pursue rather than possess. Indeed, the word itself seems to represent the end goal of almost every human pursuit. But what exactly does it mean, this symbolic objective of all earthly activity? It certainly encompasses a range of good vibes, from blissful peace to manic ecstasy. But the word’s etymological journey reveals some common qualities, which have helped me on my journey to absolute blissful contentment (I am never sad).

In addition to famously being a warm gun, happiness comes to modern English from my favorite syllable in all of Old Norse, hap, which, if you ever find yourself in 13th-century Scandinavia, can be used to mean “chance, luck, fortune, or fate.” A potent and mischievous root word, hap has weaseled its way into English across grammatical categories, from perhaps (literally, “through fate”) to haphazard (“dangerous chance”) to hapless (“lacking luck”). My favorite happy cognate comes to us from the verbified version of the Old Norse word—to make anything into a verb, Vikings would just add -en, giving us happen as hap’s active form. What happens is literally just chance in action.

Our happy, then, just pops on the classic adjectival suffix -y, which, in effect, appends “full of” to whatever it’s attached to. Lucky people are full of luck. Stinky people are full of stink. So happy people must be full of … fate? Luck? Chance? Fortune? In his book Happiness: A History, the historian Darrin McMahon writes that “in every Indo-European language, without exception, going all the way back to ancient Greek, the word for happiness is a cognate with the word for luck.” Our linguistics seems to be telling us something about existence. If to be happy is simply to be full of that which happens, then we have nothing to worry about because, unless the Clockstoppers snap back into action, we can’t help but be happy all the time.

This version of the word paints happiness as satisfaction more than as gratification—more a full acceptance of whatever might occur than the result of a dogged effort to chase pleasure. Less Euphoria and a little more Freaks and Geeks. Perhaps what the Declaration aims to protect is not our total and absolute joy, but our ability to experience the vicissitudes of life, both good and bad, without interference. To be happy is to be in accordance with occurrence; to embrace circumstance; to immerse ourselves in whatever the heck happens to be going on. Hence, the Monday clue that I hope you can take with you through your week: “Enjoying life.”