Happiness yesterday and today

The question of happiness has always interested humans.

The etymology

The etymology of the word in several languages of the European cultural era links it to luck or fate. There, happiness is something that we receive, or not, without taking any particular action, in a fatalistic way.

The philosophical schools of Antiquity

The Antiquity sees philosophical schools appearing in which the reflection and the practices for the search of happiness have all their place (schools of life). One can act on what is given. Philosophical schools often seek to teach the best and happiest life possible.

“Philosophy is an activity which, through discourse and reasoning, provides us with a happy life.” Epicurus


With the arrival of Christianity, happiness is linked to a life in love with others, and is declared possible despite the difficulties.

This happiness is however partial, awaiting a full accomplishment at the resurrection.

All men seek to be happy… This is the motive of all the actions of all men…” Blaise Pascal

Precursors of the modern quest for happiness

Men like Montaigne and Spinoza are the precursors of the modern quest for happiness. From the 18th century onwards, treaties on the subject proliferate. Its quest becomes central. It is quoted in the Declaration of Independence of the United States

All men are created equal…; they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” United States Declaration of Independence

XIXth century

In the 19th century, romantic authors and artists criticize the search for happiness. Unhappiness is perceived as more human, more creative and more authentic. Happiness is despised as a bourgeois concern to reach comfort and tranquillity. Or more radically, its pursuit is seen as exclusively a matter of individual sensibility (Schopenhauer) or of social and economic conditions (Marx), or as a fleeting state (Freud).

Being stupid. Being selfish and having good health: these are the three conditions for happiness. But if we lack the first, all is lost.” Flaubert

XXth century

The tragedies of the 20th century reinforce pessimism about the possibility of happiness and direct philosophical work on issues such as anxiety or the absurd (Heidegger, Beckett).

End of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century

The second part of the 20th century, probably following the loss of credit of the great political ideologies, saw the emergence of what would become personal development, halfway between psychology and spirituality, and which aims to increase the potential of each person and their happiness.

These last decades have seen philosophers revive the ancient tradition of approaching philosophy as a practical wisdom.

Since then the interest is there, and scientific approaches have multiplied in order to better understand it.

But I don’t think about the future or the past, I enjoy the moment. This is the secret of happiness, reached now in middle age“. Virginia Woolf