Happiness—can it be pursued?

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

This sentiment was 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.

I once 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.

He found this sentence difficult:

‘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 phrase or clause. 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. There is no equivalent in the Romance languages, nor is there a cognate word in any of the Germanic ones, Scandinavian included. The English happy and happiness do derive from a Norse word hap (‘chance’ or ‘luck’), but their formation is peculiar to English—and they have been used liberally over the centuries, sometimes causing 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) He implied 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 in those definitions of the word 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 εύδαιμονία 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. (Nicomachean Ethics Book I, passim). He defines it as the state where a person reaches his or her fulfilment as a human being.

The Founding Fathers of America seem to have had this Aristotelean view in mind, and to think they meant happiness in its currently popular sense may be a red herring. One of my tutors translated εύδαιμονία as bliss.