The word “happiness,” today, is used too ubiquitously to really mean much.There is a happy life, a happy moment, a happy accident.In etymological terms, the word’s origin is actually more closely related to “happen-stance” or “haphazard” where the root “hap” has to do with something being accidental or as a matter of fortune, rather than a result of purposeful action. In most European languages, happy meant lucky. Further, happiness’ connotation, its common usage rather than its definitive definition, has evolved from one of generality over a lifetime to one of one’s current state of being.Saying, “I am happy,” used to mean that your life was going well.Now it means, “This cake in my mouth is really something.”So, what was once a description of goals, direction and prudence, is now a full-mouthed reply to a bit of frosting.
A little history behind the “Pursuit of Happiness”:The word ‘Happiness’ in Pursuit of Happiness came from Jefferson’s understanding of English Philosophy, specifically Locke and Hutcheson, and the notion of people (in a nation) having a measurable happiness engendered by good governance and in leading virtuous lives.This has its roots in Greek Philosophy.
The Greeks ask, “how ought one to live.”The full question is really, “How ought one to live to achieve a good life.”In order to know our direction in life, we must first understand our goal, so the Greeks spend a lot of time trying to define “what is a good life.”
Aristotle often used the word ‘Eudaimonia’ as the word for the state or result of a “good life.”“We shall call a good life a Eudaimonious one.”Roughly translated, Eudaimonia means “Well-Spirited.”Now, for the word “spirit,” we have to make a distinction between Judeo/Christian common usage of ‘spirit,’ something to do with a soul or ghosts, etc, and the Greeks understanding of an essence.
I will avoid diving totally into Ancient Greek philosophy of the essences but, here is what you need to know:An “Essence” is that which defines a thing.There may be argument/discussion about what that particular defining thing is (is a hammer’s essence a matter of its shape, its function, its history, a combination of these things, or something else?), but we can all agree that the notion of something having a defining quality is an inevitable, logical consequence of calling one group a this and another group a that.
Like all things, humans share a quality or qualities which defined them as human.This is their essence, the thing or things which make them human and not something else.They named that human essence, that which defines us as humans, ‘daimon,’ or, in English, ‘spirit.’So, our spirit is our essence, that which defines us as human.
To be “Well-Spirited,” then, is to have those qualities which define us as human be at their best.It is important to note, again, that this is a notion of general being, not one of how one feels in an instant.
‘Happiness’ now comes in at the point of translation.When, throughout the ages, we have translated the Greek word Eudaimonia , we typically translated it into the word Happiness.This, etymologically speaking, was a mistake.Happiness did have the general meaning of a good life, but it was bred in an understanding that such a life was the result of luck and circumstance, a “happy-accident” if you will, and not one of choice and action.
To appreciate a Eudaimonious life, by contrast, we must appreciate the will and the reason which leads to self-discovery and positive choices.From the original Greek philosophy, we are meant to try to understand that which defines our humanity, and to strive for its perfect realization.It could be suggested, then, that a more accurate translation of the word Eudaimonia is the word ‘flourishing.’
(‘The Pursuit of Flourishing’ – to be sure, it’s not as catchy, but see how our understanding changes as we look at the history of the philosophy behind it?)
The concept of a well-spirited life leads to a notion of the virtues: tenets of prime character (for the Greeks this is: temperance, prudence, fortitude, and justice).To pursue a virtuous life, then, was to pursue a life which benefited the individual, but also the the class of humans as a whole.
To understand the “pursuit of happiness,” we must appreciate that the founders envisioned a nation of flourishing, virtuous citizens.One can debate on the quality or measure of the virtues, or the nature of that quality of essence which would thereby prescribe them, but one cannot debate that such qualities must be defined in order to find out “how one ought to live” or what it means to be truly happy.
So, what is happiness?I’ll leave that to your own contemplation.But the pursuit of happiness is clear: We are seeking a life of reason, choice and action which will have us be at our best. Though we seek this as individuals, we are seeking the success of those defining, human characteristics which we all share.