Monday, March 15, 2010

Happenstance

Are Americans happier than other people? They say they are happy in surveys, and more so than people in most other countries. Should we believe them? Anna Wierzbicka, a Polish-born linguist at the ANU in Canberra, gives some pretty compelling reasons to be skeptical.

[I]f 14 percent of Germans declare themselves to be sehr glücklich whereas 31 percent of Americans declare themselves to be very happy, can these reports be meaningfully compared if glücklich does not mean the same thing as happy? ("'Happiness' in cross-linguistic & cross-cultural perspective," Daedalus, Spring 2004, 34-43: 35)

In fact, Wierzbicka argues, the English happiness (and even more so the adjectival happy), doesn't match up with apparently similar words in other languages. Happiness is a feeling, which might be momentary. It also allows of degrees - the happiness surveys ask people if they're "very happy, fairly happy or not too happy" - while the words heureux, felice, and scastlivyj are not gradable. They all refer to something absolute, to a peak experience or condition that is not considered a matter of degree. To be asked to measure one's bonheur or one's scastie on a scale from one to ten is like being asked to measure one's bliss on such a scale. (39)

By contrast with these other concepts, it turns out happy is pretty unambitious - or has become so: it has come to be seen not as something rare or unusual, but as altogether ordinary. Happiness can still mean something rare (as Darrin McMahon argues it was until the Enlightenment), but happy has drifted away from happiness so far that it can almost be said to be halfway between happiness and okay; syntactic frames such as "I'm happy with this arrangement" reflect this semantic weakening. This weakening, in turn, can be seen as a manifestation of an overall process of the dampening of the emotions - modern Anglo-American culture's trend against emotional intensity. (38)

Wierzbicka cites a number of Poles who have found the "compulsory" cheerfulness of Americans frustrating. English conversational routines like "How are you, I'm just fine" constitute barriers to genuine heart-t-heart communication - and ... so does the wide use of the word happy. (43) I get that (I generally try to put a spanner in the works of the meaningless "How are you?" question by replying with the conspicuously ungrammatical "good") ... but who's protesting too much here? Have we trivialized happiness, or found the way to mass-produce it?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Good" is correct; that's a misconception. You'd say, "I am doing well" or "I am good," but never "I am well."