Towards a Multi-Disciplinary Approach
Edited by Amitava Krishna Dutt and Benjamin Radcliff
Chapter 1: The History of Happiness and Contemporary Happiness Studies
Darrin M. McMahon I feel that I am singularly unfit to answer the question: ‘what is happiness?’ in large part because of my training as a historian, which makes me, I fear, unduly attentive to the way in which words and concepts change their meanings over time. To be perfectly frank, I’m partial to Immanuel Kant’s observation that ‘the concept of happiness is such an indeterminate one that even though everyone wishes to attain happiness, yet he can never say definitely and consistently what it is what he really wishes and wills.’ But clearly that is not really going to be good enough for this chapter. So how to answer the question ‘what is happiness?’ I might point out, as I do in my book, the strong and stubborn etymological link between happiness and luck in every Indo-European language (see McMahon, 2006). The old Norse and Old English root ‘hap’, like the old French heur or the Mittelhockdeutsch ‘Glück’ simply means luck or fortune. We have mishaps when bad things happen to us. And when good things happen to us – when we are lucky – we are happy, Glücklich, filled with bon-heur. I might, to take another tack, note the equally long and stubborn connection relating happiness and good fortune to fortune itself – to wealth, prosperity, fertility and abundance. It is not coincidental that the early Greeks spoke of the gods as olbios or makarios – as blessed or happy – not least because of their material prosperity. Thus...
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