What if happiness meant something different to what you thought it meant?

What if happiness meant something different to what you thought it meant?

via Fast Company by Rob Boddice-Aeon

‘Be happy!’ Mary Wollstonecraft exhorted her estranged lover and tormentor, Gilbert Imlay, in late 1795. What did she mean? It had been only days since she had been fished from the Thames, having failed in a bid to drown herself. Scorned, shamed and diminished in her view of herself in the world, Wollstonecraft had chosen death. Here too she was thwarted, ‘inhumanly brought back to life and misery’. Imlay’s philandering was the source of her ills, and she told him as much. Why, then, wish him to be happy? Was this forgiveness? Hardly. Wollstonecraft knew Imlay’s new mistress was ‘the only thing sacred’ in his eyes, and that her death would not quell his ‘enjoyment’.

Wollstonecraft’s use of ‘happiness’ was not idiosyncratic. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary defined it as ‘felicity’ or ‘blissfulness’ or the ‘state in which the desires are satisfied’. Wollstonecraft was telling Imlay to satiate himself physically, implying that he had no depth of feeling. This fleshly happiness, in other words, was all she thought him capable of. In her suicide note, addressed to Imlay, she wrote: ‘Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasures, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.’ Be happy then but, if it turns out you are human, you’ll be thinking of me when you fuck her.

A recent paper in Nature Human Behavior claimed to present ‘historical analysis of national subjective wellbeing’. To do so, it relied on a quantitative analysis of digitized books, newspapers and magazines from the past two centuries. It focused on ‘words with stable historical meanings’. The effort, by Thomas T Hills of the Turing Institute and the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick in the UK, caused dismay and not a little mockery from historians. The Wollstonecraft story above shows what many ‘Twitterstorians’ pointed out: there are no words with ‘stable historical meanings’, particularly not big and important words. ‘Happiness’ is an unstable historical concept, a false friend in historical sources. Nonetheless, the popular press fastened onto the claim that the 1880s were the happiest Britons had ever been. If only the mill workers of Manchester and slum dwellers of London had known…

…keep reading the full & original article HERE