Monday, 16 August 2010

Happiness, Polish-style

A recent post was picked up by fellow-blogger Paulina at Perfect Polish. She points out that the words 'happy' and 'lucky' are both translated into Polish as szczęśliwy. (Just looking at that word must make English speakers tongues go all weird.) So time for a discourse on this subject. Consider szczęśliwie, nic złego się nie stało ('luckily nothing bad happened') and jestem szczęśliwy ('I am happy'). In the first case, the cause of the good fortune is external. In the second, it is an internal state of mind, an emotion. So why, given the unrelated nature of the two concepts - do they find themselves in Polish occupying one word? Latin, French, Spanish, Italian... 

Two words. German, like Polish has - one word for both (glücklich). As does Dutch (gelukkig). 'Glad?' The Swedish and Norwegian word for 'happy'. The Russian (udachlivy for lucky, compare to udać in Polish - to work out, i.e. a lucky person is one for whom things have worked out, as opposed to a nieudacznik, someone upon whom the fates have not smiled kindly.) Schastlivy, Russian for happy, is basically the same word as the Polish szczęśliwy. Given my theory of linguistic blanks pointing us towards cultural difference, is there something about the Polish and Nordic attitudes to luck and happiness that make them different to the peoples all around them? Any comments, dear readers? Luck, good fortune, is something that troubles philosophers deeply. 

The chances of us being alive, for example. Multiply the chances of your parents meeting, by the chances of their parents meeting, and so on through evolution to the earliest forms of primitive life. Each and every stage, each and every mating (and we are talking hundreds of billions) had to be a success for you to have been born. And on a planet that's just the right distance from a star that's just the right brightness and warmth. In a universe that's just the right age to host planetary development. So then, here we are. You, me, them, everybody. Consciously aware of what's around us. The products of a szczęśliwy traf ('lucky strike') so infinitesimally improbable as to make the 1 in 14,000,000 odds against winning the lottery as likely as flipping heads or tails. There's the luck bit. The happiness bit should be a concomitant. We are - we should rejoice in being! Our internal state of mind should be predicated from the outset by the realisation of how the purest of chance brought us to be. Yet too often, it's not; we lose sight of the wonder of our consciousness, and in doing so, we become unhappy. 

 The Mike Leigh film, Happy-go-Lucky, was released in Poland under the title of Happy-go-Lucky, czyli co nas uszczęśliwia, which can mean both '...what makes us happy', or 'what causes us to be lucky'.


Jeannie said...

When I read her comment the other day, I immediately thought of the differences between the French "contente" and "heureuse." You would never say that you were "heureuse" for an ordinary thing--for that you would say je suis contente. But in English, we say happy, not content. Content to us in English is a rather boring state of mind, and we prefer to say "happy," meaning that we have crossed that line of satisfactory existence into a state of well-being that very well could still be within the French "contente" parameter.

As for how Poland draws the line...?

Michael Dembinski said...

"Mam dobre samopoczucie" is a good Polish equivalent for 'happy' in the English sense.

@ Jeannie - I take your point - 'happy' is in danger of turning into a word as anodyne as 'nice'.

Fisz i Czips said...

I can't explain it well but this makes me think of Nassim Taleb's musings,Fooled by Randomness/Black Swan.

Maybe cultures where luck/happiness combine are more sober in their thought patterns. Maybe they aren't 'fools' of randomness because they realize how lucky they are to be on this planet. And maybe some of them (Polacy) are debilitated by it. Since if you believe that almost everything involves a high degree of luck rather than skill, making decisions can be an almost impossible task (Polish parliament...)

Anyways, I'm bastardizing Taleb's theories or what I can remember from them, but I do think there may be something to it. If you are drive by emotion (happiness, sadness) it may be easier to navigate through the ups and downs of life. Whereas being subservient to chance may make it unpleasant.

Being able to balance both your emotions and your rational side, at the right times, is the ideal, maybe that's what the Germans do?

Steve said...

Thanks to pointing the difference of 'szczęśliwy'. I hadn't noticed this and I will look out for it in future. My immediate thought is simply to wonder if there is some connection with the concept of 'fate' - this must have more obvious importance to people who consider happiness and luck to be strongly linked.

I have to admit that I dislike the sort of philosophers that you talk about. For my tastes, too much of what they say is based on emotional manipulation of language rather than logical thought. 'Infinitesimally improbable' seems a great argument, but it is a purely emotional concept. Not only are the odds not infinite, the number of event occurrences appear to have been so many times greater that (in hindsight) we can argue that the odds were comparatively so small as to be virtually inevitable. Indeed, astronomers are widely convinced that there are so many event occurrences compare to the odds, that they assume that it is reasonable for them to be given huge amounts of money to search for equivalent life elsewhere. Philosophy will have to await its pontificating until the scientists have found equivalent life, or enough time has elapsed (another billion years given light speed?) for it to be worth thinking humanity is against the odds.

I do consider the whole universe around me to be a miracle, but this is based on my sheer awe and wonder of the brilliance of it all: its 'impossible' in the sheer emotional sense of the word, not in its logical content. I am completely agnostic to some supernatural being involved in its creation since that makes no difference to its current existence. I think that this means that involvement of such a being or beings in the current lives of people is the real issue of religious speculation. I personally dislike the attempts of some religious thinkers to align physics with the Christian God by asserting that God was the creator at the Big Bang and then, having created the system, physics took over. If that's the end of it, he/she/it is no longer relevant.

As for rejoicing in our being, isn't that prerogative of those that in some way we might feel ought to be content/happy. Think of those poor people on TV in war torn, famine and drought areas, on the edge of death with a dead baby in arms and all the rest of the family murdered. Should we expect her/him to think, "hey, I'm lucky to exist"? I would look on their luck as following events, not preceding them: if they get food, water and hope, then they will be lucky. If not and if such conditions have been dominant through their lives, they may well have been unlucky to have been born. Doesn't that follow from the concept of original sin?

Island1 said...

Money, money, money
Must be funny
In the rich man's world

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Jamie:

It must indeed be amusing. Still Bennie and Bjorn (never the most profound songwriters) would know about how money doesn't actually make you happier.

@ Steve:

I have long held that science and theology will one day merge. A Serious Man goes some way in this direction.

Paulina Wawrzyńczyk said...


@ Michael, my point was more about the state of mind. Exactly what you wrote in comments " is a good Polish equivalent for 'happy' in the English sense". How to say that you are completely egzystencjalnie szczęśliwy in English?

It's really interesting why in Polish there's only one word for lucky and happy. I must read more on that. We don't feel responsible for our own happiness? Responsibility is not what Poles like.

My next problem is the word "wesoły". Too many words in English...