Revisiting Happiness

As Asia celebrates the Chinese New Year with greetings of “Kung hei fat cho!” (Congratulations and be prosperous!) , I find myself enjoying the “happiness issue” of the Harvard Business Review (January-February, 2012). It is so apt a reading for people like me who are in a reset mode at this time of the year. The magazine devotes five extensively researched articles on happiness:
1. The History of Happiness by Peter N. Stearns
2. The Economics of Well-Being by Justin Fox
3. The Science Behind the Smile – an interview with Daniel Gilbert by Gardiner Morse
4. Creating Sustainable Performance by Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porath
5. Positive Intelligence by Shawn Achor

Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci is a 15th century painting of Lisa del Giacondo, wife of wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. An unnamed historian had, according to the author, surmised that the tentative smile in Mona Lisa's portrait was probably due to tooth decay.

Let us start with the History of Happiness.
According to Professor Peter N. Stearns of George Mason University, the happiness culture is relatively a modern concept in Western culture, tracing its origins to the Enlightenment period in the 18th century. It was during this period when Christians began embracing the idea of cheerfulness as something pleasing to God. Along with this shift in religious perspective were the technological advances of this period, including better home heating, umbrellas, and improved dentistry, which enhanced comfort for the middle class. By the end of the 18th century, the notion of happiness as a worthy life goal would transcend into the political dimension, with the American founding revolutionaries formally recognizing in the declaration of independence the “pursuit of happiness” as an unalienable right.

By the 19th century, the happiness value had become part of many facets of daily life, including the workplace and family life. Workplace standards would also embrace the happiness culture, in the same manner that businesses would see happiness of its employees as an advantage. The increasing cultural commitment to happiness translated into new emotional responsibilities and downsides, including the pressure to avoid unhappiness in family life and in workplaces, even diagnosing unhappy states as pathology. While the problems with the happiness culture may be outweighed by what he calls “cheerful artifacts”, the author sees such problems as a way to facilitate changes in such culture, moving forward.

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