International Day of Happiness is here!

What is true happiness?  One of the biggest questions in human history has drawn answers from all fields – from theology and medicine to literature and anthropology – and obsesses the media.  But what effect does language have on the subject?

The English word ‘happy’ can mean anything from ‘joyful’ to merely ‘content’ – but originally, it meant merely lucky.  We can still glimpse this meaning in phrases like ‘a happy circumstance’, meaning one which is fortuitous, rather than satisfactory – and it puts a fresh slant on a ‘happy ending’.

Other languages have developed along the same lines but make a plainer connection between happenstance and happiness – in German, for example, ‘sie ist glücklich’ means ‘she is happy’, whereas the equivalent of ‘she is lucky’ would be ‘sie hat Glück’ –  she has luck!

It’s long been known that while words are shaped by our perceptions of the world, they also shape it.  Until recently, the concept of the colour blue did not exist in most languages, and the sky was generally agreed to be green; in Russian, there is an obligatory distinction between light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy).

Furthermore, scientists have found that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently, and even accidents of grammar can profoundly affect our experience of the world. A Russian will more quickly distinguish between siniy and goluboy than between blues in the same category, while English speakers show no comparable difference.

This has big implications, not least for our mental health.  The relationship between language and mood has been examined for decades, and you may be happy to hear that scientists have established that in all languages, people tend to use positive words more often than negative ones.  Whatever the difference from dialect to dialect, one thing all human languages share is their bias towards happiness.

March 20th is the International Day of Happiness – so why not spend the day using your most positive language and spread a little joy?

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