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Can We Pursue Happiness?

August 29, 2013

What is happiness? Is it something we can pursue? Or is it not something that can be pursued at all?

Most Americans think that happiness is something one can pursue. After all, Thomas Jefferson said that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the three basic human rights. But, do others feel the same?

When we looked at the dictionary definitions of happiness in 30 nations, we found that many people in the world might not think of happiness as something they could actively pursue (Oishi et al., 2013). In Japanese (my first language), happiness is “幸福”. The first character “幸” (せ) was originally “仕合せ”, which meant “what happens.” The second character, “福” means “good fortune” and “luck”. So, in Japanese happiness is the good luck and fortune bestowed upon individuals. Because Chinese and Koreans use the same Chinese characters, the fundamental meanings of the words for happiness are very similar to the Japanese meanings. Initially, we thought that this finding was probably only applicable to East Asia. However, when we looked at many European languages, we realized that this is not specific to East Asians. For example, the German word for happiness is “Glück”, which literally means “luck”. The French word for happiness is “bon heur”, which literally means “good luck” (bon = good, heur = luck). The Norwegian word for happiness is “lykke”, which again literally means “luck” (influential psychologist David Lykken wrote a book entitled “Happiness;” his last name means “happy”).

Given that the words for “happiness” in German, French, Portuguese, Russian, Estonian, Romanian, Norwegian, Indonesian, Israeli, Malay, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Pakistani, Iranian, and Turkish all have the meaning of “good luck and fortune,” we decided to examine the historical meaning of English word “happiness”, too. It turned out that the Oxford English Dictionary records the first use of “happiness” in 1530 as “good fortune or luck in life or in a particular affair; success, prosperity.” Australian Oxford English Dictionary was the same way. Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary published in 1850 in the U.S. also said that happiness is good luck and fortune. Tracing further back in history, the Ancient Greek term for happiness, “eudaimonia”, consists of “eu” or “good”, and “daimon” or “spirit”. The historian Darrin McMahon (2006) stated that “eudaimonia thus contains within it a notion of fortune—for to have a good daimon on your side, a guiding spirit, is to be lucky” (McMahon, 2006, p 3-4). Thus, “happiness is what happens to us, and over that we have no control” (McMahon, 2006, p. 19).  Throughout the history of most civilizations and most nations today, it appears that the central meaning of happiness has been good luck and fortune, over which humans have no control (see Oishi, 2012 for more).

Then, when did the definition of happiness change in the U.S.? In order to answer this question, we first looked at various editions of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. In the 1961 edition, there was a major change, which denoted that the definition of happiness as good luck and fortune was “archaic.” That is, in the 1961 edition, the experts who created Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary decided that happiness did not mean good luck and fortune to most Americans anymore.

Because the changes in the dictionary definition only happen slowly and sporadically, it is premature to conclude that it was 1961 when the American definition of happiness changed. How can we more accurately test when the definitional change took place?

We thought about starting with examining the State of the Union. After all, ever since the first president, George Washington, each president has given State of the Union addresses. Comparing the use of the terms “happy” and “happiness”, we can identify the precise timing of the cultural change in the meaning of “happiness” better than when relying on the dictionaries. Earlier presidents used “happy” and “happiness” to refer to a fortunate condition of the nation. For example, George Washington said “the intelligence from the army under the command of General Wayne is a happy presage to our military operations against the hostile Indians north of the Ohio.” Similarly, President John Adams in 1799 told Congress the following: “The various and inestimable advantages, civil and religious, which, secured under our happy frame of government, are continued to us unimpaired, demand of the whole American people sincere thanks to a benevolent Deity for the merciful dispensations of His providence. . .. As to myself, it is my anxious desire so to execute the trust reposed in me as to render the people of the United States prosperous and happy.’’ President James Madison said in 1812, “Such is the happy condition of our country, arising from the facility of subsistence and the high wages for every species of occupation.” In 1817, President Madison again stated, “At no period of our political existence had we so much cause to felicitate ourselves at the prosperous and happy condition of our country. . . It is [in] contemplating the happy situation of the United States, [that] our attention is drawn with peculiar interest to surviving officers and soldiers of our Revolutionary army.’’

When we plotted the frequency of the word “happiness” used as meaning good luck and fortune in the State of Union addresses against the years, it was clear that the change happened around 1920. Woodrow Wilson was the last president to use “happiness”, as meaning good luck and fortune, more than 3 times per address.


Figure 1. Use of the terms happy and happiness in the luck/fortunate sense in American presidents’ State of the Union addresses (1790-2010).

Of course, the State of the Union addresses are very formal, political speeches. Therefore, it is questionable how much the findings from the State of the Union can be generalized. We thus analyzed all the books published between 1800 and 2008, and looked at the frequency in which the term “personal happiness” and “national happiness” appeared, using Google Ngram Viewer. We were quite surprised to find that the timing of the shift was almost identical to the State of the Union results. That is, until 1920, “national happiness” was used more frequently than “personal happiness.” However, around 1920, “personal happiness” became more popular than “national happiness.”

So, historically speaking, in the U.S. happiness meant good luck and fortune. It is a relatively new idea to conceive of happiness as something one can pursue.

But, why did it change around 1920? Many historians of American culture conceive 1920s as a turning point, the first decade of affluence, urbanizatioLyubomirskyn, and consumer culture. Affluence meant more personal control over one’s life. A shift from agriculture to service/manufacturing industry meant a more predictable income and future. For the first time, middle-class Americans could enjoy abundant supplies of goods. Ford’s Highland Park plant started producing over 1,000 cars a day in the late 1910s, increasing rates of car ownership in the 1920s. Middle-class Americans could enjoy freedom of travel at their convenience. People joined the stock markets and enjoyed the dramatic increase in their assets, at least until its devastating crash in 1929.  Although many aspects of life were still LyubomirskyAout of one’s active control, Americans could believe that they were able to control their own fate.

In many parts of the world today, economic developments have revolutionized the way people live their lives. Economic revolutions might bring the change in the concept of happiness, similar to how it changed in the 1920s in the U.S., despite the fact that economic development is never linear. As stated above, the traditional meaning of “happiness” in Japan is good luck and fortune. Yet, I know many Japanese today are actively pursuing happiness (successfully or not). That is a reason why Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book “The How of Happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want” is selling very well everywhere, including in Japan. In a couple of decades, 広辞苑, the Japanese equivalent of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, might denote that the definition of happiness as “the good luck and fortune bestowed upon” is archaic (Knowing Japanese, they probably would not, though).


Lybomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want. Penguin, New York.

Lykken, D. (1999).  Happiness: What studies on Twins show us about nature, nurture and the happiness of set point. Golden Books.

McMahon, D. M. (2006). Happiness: A history. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Oishi, S. (2012). The Psychological wealth of nations: Do happy nations make a happy society? Wiley-Blackwell.

Oishi, S., Graham, J., Kesebir, S., & Galinha, I. (2013). Concepts of happiness across time and cultures. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 559-577.


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