The Semantics and Behaviour behind Happiness: The 2nd Hardest Word to Define/Translate

Image result for happy/sad

Writing for The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith (@EmEsfahaniSmith) penned an awesome piece titled “Meaning Is Healthier Than Happiness.” The byline to her article pretty much says it all:

“People who are happy but have little-to-no sense of meaning in their lives have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity.”


Ms. Smith, author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, looks at one specific psychology study that in very simple terms broke down our actions as either selfless “giving” behaviour, which is associated with meaning, or as selfish “taking” behaviour, which is tied to happiness. As the authors of the study wrote:

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided. If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need.”

While I can see a lot of the logic behind the differentiation in the concepts of happiness and meaning/self-fulfillment, I was curious how language can, if at all, inform us of what our ancestors thought of the word “happy.” As always, diachronic linguistics (just a fancy way of saying the history behind language) can be as informative as the study of current medical and psychological data.

To begin, what we in English today refer to as “happy” or “happiness” comes from Middle English (1300-50) and essentially meant “lucky, favored by fortune, prosperous.” In fact, according to that book Donnie T. calls “a dirty old rag too stupid to capitalize my own name” – or what the rest of us dumbass plebes call a dictionary – the origin of “happy” right across Western Europe was strikingly similar:

From Greek to Irish, a great majority of the European words forhappy’ at first meantlucky.’ An exception is Welsh, where the word used first meantwise.'”

Bloody Welsh! Always usurping the rest of Europe with their flute-playing high-falutin beliefs. Must be their enviable weather and mouth-watering laverbread.

But I digress. As usual. Same-same but different this time.

Let’s go back even further in history, shall we? It would seem the Romans had the same idea behind their concept of “happy,” as their words – laetus (masculine) laeta (feminine) and laetum (neuter) – meant (1) favourable/propitious; (2) cheerful/joyful/glad; and (3) prosperous/successful.

One step back in time and we arrive at the ancient Greeks, who finally had a unique idea all their own (how did nobody from Homer to Aristotle ever get anything right!); “happiness” for them was “experiencing the fullness of something.” Now contrast that with its opposite, which Aristotle defined as “to be in want, to be in need, to be destitute.”

Okay, maybe the Greeks got something right besides a salad.

In any event, I wanted to look at a completely different language and one with no ties to English, Germanic, Latin or Greek to see what the etymology behind “happiness” was somewhere else in the world. Enter, stage left, Messrs Chinese and Korean.

In Korean, the noun “happiness” is 행복 (haengbok), while in adjective form (which is technically a verb in KO-ree-an…yeah, wrap your head around them apples!) “happy” is 행복하다 (haengbokhada). Both the haeng and bok characters are derived from Classical Chinese, haeng being translated as “fortunate” and bok meaning “happy.”

(Strangely, the opposite of haengbok from Characters is 명복, myeongbok, whose two geulja refer to “dark” (or Hades by extension) and “fortune” (the same bok in “happy/happiness”), which taken together are translated as “happiness in the after life.”)

This led me to don my Ignatius J. Reilly sleuthing toque and go behind the scenes to figure out what the Chinese characters xing (haeng) and fu (bok) originally referred to from their radicals.

As it turns out, xing (haeng) comes from two radicals, land & bitter (filed under the radical for “shield” in a Chinese dictionary), meaning “fortunate/lucky,” while fu (bok) stems from four radicals, manifest, mouth, one & field (filed under the radical for “manifest” in a Chinese dictionary), meaning “happy/prosperity/luck.”

So what do we take away from this hot mess of language and science? Basically, the Greeks had it right all along when it comes to the notion of “happiness,” a fact now backed up by empirical data. (Jeez, even the Welsh seemed to have a better handle on this notion than the rest of the world, at least linguistically).

Be that as it may, I for one – when speaking in English – do still consider happiness as being both blessed and fortunate, a state of mind that propels us to be kind to others and to practice selflessness over selfishness, peace over turmoil, love over hate.

The byline to my post today is “The 2nd Hardest Word to Define/Translate,” which begs the question: What is the hardest word to define in and translate from English?

Ooh ooh ooh! A cliffhanger ending! The reader has a mild inclination to scoff and then kill this window, but an even greater desire to slap me silly unless I follow through with my pledge and answer this confounding conundrum posthaste. You might have to wait a day or two for that, though…


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