What is the meaning of happiness? The English word comes from the Old Norse ‘happ’, which meant good luck or good fortune. It’s connected with the words ‘haphazard’ (random, chance), and ‘hapless’ (unlucky). And my favourite dictionary, Chambers, says that ‘hap’ is still a noun in circulation, meaning chance, fortune, or accident – although I can’t remember ever having heard this used in ordinary conversation.
I mention all this because John P. Keenan posted this illuminating etymological comment on the Chinese character (above) that I used in my previous post:
The character is pronounced fu and is found in the dictionaries as 福. The form here is a “grass” character, an artistic rendering that flows like the grasses.
Its original meaning, as I was taught by Dr. Derk Bodde at the University of Pennsylvania, was “salary,” for that provided the ancient Chinese with a firm sense of prosperity. Today it simply means “good fortune” or “happiness,” and is found often in Chinese restaurants. . .
Even then, it was “all about the economy”!?
It’s easy to sniff or chuckle at this crude link between salary/prosperity and happiness in Chinese culture. But as you can see from the etymology of our own English word, the link between profound existential notions of happiness and material good fortune is pretty universal.
I happened (there is that word again) to write something similar about the connection between happiness and fortune in Greek thought. Here is an excerpt:
Let me look at two Greek words. One of them is a word used in ancient Greek philosophy: eudaimonia. The simplest way of translating this is ‘happiness’. But it’s something much richer, and there are always fights amongst the scholars about how to translate this word. Perhaps the best extended definition is ‘all-round human fulfilment’. It’s about living well, living a life that is all that it could be. A rich life; a fulfilled life. In fact one of the best equivalents, which sounds a bit old-fashioned today, is the phrase ‘flourishing’. I’ve got a friend, and whenever I used to say to her ‘how are you’, she would reply ‘flourishing!’ It sounds a bit quaint now, but it has a beautiful meaning. It means everything we have been describing: A good life, a rich life, a fulfilled life, a life that has grown into what it could be. This is eudaimonia in Greek philosophy.
Another Greek word is well known from the Scriptures, from the Beatitudes of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn…’ That word ‘blessed’ is makarios in Greek. This is another word that has caused great arguments amongst scholars and translators. If you read the Jerusalem Bible, or the New Jerusalem Bible, you will hear the word ‘happy’. And this is the version Catholics hear in the readings at Mass on Sundays. ‘Happy are the poor in spirit’. If you go back to other Greek texts of the same period, the literal meaning of makarios is ‘fortunate’. It’s not a particularly religious word; it’s an ordinary secular word. Perhaps the best common translation today would be the word ‘lucky’. You are ‘lucky, fortunate’ if you are poor in spirit.
So you can see the tensions when you have to make a choice about a translation. You can use the word ‘blessed’, which is very rich; but it’s a bit too religious. Because ‘blessed’ is a religious word in contemporary English, which is not actually the original Greek meaning. But if you say ‘happy’ — in the modern idiom this sounds a bit too superficial. And really, in both a religious and secular sense, we are trying to point to a life that is all that it could be — happy, fortunate, rich, blessed, fulfilled, flourishing. I’m going to use the word ‘happiness’ to mean all these things. Happiness in a large sense.
The idea of happiness gives us a good starting point when we are trying to discuss human life, and human actions, and then morality. Because even if we are confused by the idea of rules, of right and wrong, or doubtful, it’s still true that most of us, even those with no faith, would be able to agree that as human beings we are seeking something in life, seeking some kind of happiness and fulfilment. Even if we disagree with each other and with friends and neighbours about exactly how to find it, we at least have a starting point: Here we are as human beings, seeking something, seeking some kind of fulfilment and meaning.
The article is called “Christian Morality and the Search for Happiness”. It’s one chapter in the book Faith Matters: Fundamentals of Faith recently published by St Pauls, London; with chapters by different authors about prayer, the bible, authority and conscience, and Catholic social teaching. Well worth buying! (I can’t find it on Amazon – but there is a link here to the St Paul’s Bookshop page about the book, where you can order it online.)