“Clap along if you know what happiness is to you” sang Pharrell Williams in his famous song, “Happy”. So, are you clapping?
Before I answer that question, the word “happy” has always fascinated me because it is both simple yet complex. When I first think of happiness, I think of a yellow smiley face. But happiness is more than that… right? My childhood definition of a yellow smiley face is challenged every year that I grow older. When I was a kid, happiness felt simple. It felt pure. Being happy is a feeling, and just like every other feeling it comes and goes.
Happiness is not a permanent feeling and this even seems to be ingrained into the etymology of the word. One of the first definitions of happy was “lucky, favored by fortune, being in advantageous circumstances, prosperous” (Online Etymology Dictionary). The “happ” in happy comes from the old North Germanic language, Norse, and it translates to “chance” or “good luck”, highlighting the positive origin of the word “happy” (Online Etymology Dictionary). Furthermore, many European cultures also thought of “happy” as “lucky” (Online Etymology Dictionary). Although similar, the definition of happy most used today is when something is “characterized by or indicative of pleasure, contentment, or joy” (“happy” def.1.a). Happy might be an old word, but it is interesting to see how throughout the years, “happy” has never lost its positive connotation. It is funny how when I was a child, one of the first feelings I learned was happiness. I was taught how a smile or a laugh meant happiness. But not every smile and laugh represents happiness. Happiness… comes; happiness… goes.
However, American society idolizes the false conception of permanent happiness, and throughout the years, happiness has been strongly associated with American culture; “the smiling American was becoming a stereotype two centuries ago” (Stearns). This is historically significant because it shows how as a society, we force ourselves and others around us to be happy. But that isn’t possible because happiness isn’t permanent, it’s temporary. Forcing happiness has never done anyone any good. For example, in the 19th century Americans felt the need to be happy with their family lives. This only led to an unhealthy environment that did not foster a safe space to talk openly about any problems a family was facing. Unfortunately, this effect was seen through the high divorce rates in the later part of the 19th century (Stearns). This notion of forcing happiness results in a suppression of other feelings. By putting “happy” on a pedestal, we view the other feelings in a negative light.
In addition to an increased emphasis on happiness, people have also recently started to turn to physical indicators to measure happiness around the world. Factors such as the GDP, health, and money of countries have been used to see how happy the human species is (Dolan and Harrison). We want physical measures for happiness, but quite frankly, a feeling is always hard to measure. Happiness is something that should be untouched by our quantification of everything.
So if I had to respond to Pharell Williams’ lyric: “Clap along if you know what happiness is to you”, the short answer is I wouldn’t clap. Many people would answer this question with a simple list of activities that they know brings them joy, but this is also an attempt to quantify happiness. Happiness just happens, it cannot be measured nor calculated. In a cavern full of people, happiness would be the traveler wandering from place to place never staying too long. The traveler will come visit you too. Being happy isn’t a lifestyle. Happiness isn’t a yellow smiley face.