A history of happiness

Happiness is something many take for granted, but the history has been a little more turbulent than that. It has even been declared a right! From Aristotle to the United Nations, find out what it means to be happy.

350 BC

  • Aristotle writes that happiness is:

the best, most noble, and most pleasant thing in the world


  • The US Declaration of Independence declares that all men have a right to “the pursuit of happiness”.


  • British chemist Humphry Davy discovers the pain-relieving and giggle-inducing properties of nitrous oxide, aka “laughing gas”.


  • William Mansel Llewelyn becomes perhaps the first person to be captured smiling in a photograph.


  • Parenting books address childhood happiness.


  • US Navy sailors introduce the phrase happy hour for the scheduled period of entertainment and relaxation aboard the ship.


  • Patty and Mildred Hill’s “Happy Birthday to You” is copyrighted.


  • American and Swiss researchers stumble across drugs that improve mood in depressed patients: antidepressants are born.


  • Bhutan leader Jigme Singye Wangchuck introduces “gross national happiness” as a measure for national success.


  • Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” becomes the first a cappella song to reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Prozac is also introduced to the US market. Coincidence?


  • Martin Seligman founds positive psychology, with the aim of making “normal life more fulfilling”.


  • British Prime Minister David Cameron announces the “happiness index”, an initiative to measure the wellbeing of the British people.
  • Twenty-somethings rethink happiness.

My vision of success is based on the impact I can have, much more than the pursuit of money or prestige 

- Matt Salzberg, Harvard Business School class of 2010.


  • The UN resolves that the happiness of its member nations will play a larger role in development policy.


  • Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness, writes: 

Happiness is the culmination of all of the actions, choices, and habits that fill our days, as well as how we think about them.

Buy: The complete BBC series Civilisation: A Personal View By Lord Clark, £17.49