Word Games: Happy

A recent Gallup poll asked people in different countries how happy they were. Denmark won the race, with 82 per cent of respondents saying they were happy. In China, only 6 per cent ticked the happy box. This did not go down well. As the China Digital Times reported, the State Council Information Office issued an order: "All websites are instructed to immediately remove the story: 'In China 94 per cent are unhappy; top-heavy concentration of wealth' and related information." Maybe if no one reads about being unhappy, they'll never know they are.

Here, by contrast, we seem to talk about happiness an awful lot. It goes something like this: everyone got fat, rich and miserable; the economy broke; we searched our souls; politicians (see Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron) suggested that we should measure happiness instead of growth; no one seemed entirely sure how to do that; a lot of commentators countered, wisely, that looking for happiness and pondering whether you are happy or not are probably the two quickest ways to descend into gloom.

I suppose it's heartening that politicians see the virtue in putting their population's well-being ahead of rapid accrual of wealth, but on the evidence of Cameron's recent jaunt around the Middle East with arms manufacturers, I'm not sure I believe him. It's fashionable to talk about happiness,
but harder to enact.

Perhaps we are simply too hung up on being happy. And I mean happy, not content, or calm, or fulfilled, or purposeful. The word has led us astray. It comes from the 14th-century "hap", meaning chance or fortune. Happy really means lucky.

And any sage could tell you that luck is a fool's game. Happiness is tinged with silliness. Think of "trigger-happy", when someone goes loopy with a gun. The word denotes irrationality, a lack of cool logic or control. It is also momentary - a daft, intoxicated state that evaporates as quickly as it forms.

When you think of it like that, why would you want to be happy? Don't worry, be happy, goes the phrase. Stuff that. Don't be happy, worry. It makes the world infinitely more interesting.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world