Happiness—can it be pursued?

“The pursuit of happiness?” said a colleague. “What’s that? Happiness happens.”

Knowingly or not, she was repeating a sentiment often voiced by Willie Maddison’s headmaster in Henry Williamson’s Dandelion Days. “Happiness haps,” he said to his pupils when trying to impress upon them that happiness arrives when you are pursuing something else.

It was a reminder of when I gave a talented sixth former the second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence to translate into Latin, assuming that Thomas Jefferson himself, or at least one of his erudite peers, had probably done so.

The most famous sentence is a demanding one:

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’

There is no Latin—or Greek—equivalent for Rights: that has to be rendered with a verb expression. And then you get to Happiness. This word has caused a problem in both Latin and Greek composition—and not only in those languages. It is a stumbling block when translating into any European tongue. Not only is there no equivalent in the Romance languages: it has no cognate words in any of the Germanic languages, Scandinavian included. The words happy and happiness derive from a Norse word hap (‘chance’ or ‘luck’), but they have appeared only within the English language—and have been used liberally and indiscriminately over the centuries, to the extent that they cause semantic discomfort.

Our chaplain objected to ‘Happy are the pure in heart’ in a modern translation of the Beatitudes: the Greek Μακάριοι, he said, does not mean that, and the Vulgate translates it as Beati.

Thomas Szasz, the noted (and controversial) American academic who researched some of the principles of psychiatry, went further, describing happiness as an imaginary condition. (The Second Sin, 1973) The implication seems to be that it is a disreputable word, which has long misled people.

What, then, was in the minds of those revered men who drafted the Declaration of Independence, when they wrote of the pursuit of happiness? The answer is perhaps to be found in those definitions of the word happy that denote a state of mind and circumstance rather than an emotion, which in recent decades it has come to mean, especially in England.

  • Samuel Johnson 1755: In a state of felicity; in a state where the desire is satisfied.
  • Concise Oxford Dictionary 1952: Lucky, fortunate; contented with one’s lot.
  • Merriam-Webster 2021: Enjoying or characterized by well-being or contentment.

Aristotle concludes that human beings pursue happiness as a matter of course: it is the only thing they aim at for its own sake rather than as a means to something else. The Founding Fathers of America, in the tradition of Aristotle, were defining happiness as the state of citizens who behave honestly and honourably and are justly rewarded. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics Book I, passim)