25. Juni 2006

What is "Glück"?

We Germans are, these days, in a collective state of ... well, of what we call "Glück". Many commentators have recalled the days of the German reunification, when Berlin's Mayor at that time, Walter Momper, called us "das glücklichste Volk der Welt", the happiest people in the world. Happy days are here again, it seems.

What does Glück mean to us Germans? Here are a few reflections.

One of the most widely used German-English internet dictionaries, LEO, offers these English translations of "Glück":

Clearly, these terms, at least some of them, mean very different things, at least to Non-Germans:

  • First, there is the emotional state that we call Glück. Happiness. Bliss, which is often better translated as "Glückseligkeit". That's what we Germans express freely during these days and weeks - indeed, more freely than many expected from us - when we dance in the streets, sing and laugh, celebrating our Soccer Heroes' victories.

    "Glück" in this meaning of the word is the opposite of depression. It is a positive state of mind, somewhere between joy and ecstacy. It is also a transient state of mind. You can't be happy all the time. "Das Glück vergeht", is a German saying, or "das Glück verweht" - bliss vanishes, it dies away, it passes by.

    But there is also a more permanent, more stable form of Glück. "Höchstes Glück der Erdenkinder sei nur die Persönlichkeit" is an often-quoted citation from Goethe's West-östlichem Divan - the utmost happiness of us human creatures is nothing but personality.

    Here we have Glück not as a transient state, but as a lifelong condition. It is Glück in this sense that is the subject matter of a newly established field of empirical research, "Glücksforschung", that has recently even been bestowed with a professional journal of its own, the Journal of Happiness Research. What are the factors that determine whether people experience this more or less permanent state of happiness, of being content with one's life condition? This is the central focus of this new research area.

  • But Glück can also mean something quite different. "Wenn wir Glück haben, dürfen wir eventuell mal reisen" was a standard phrase in Communist Eastern Germany, the DDR: If we are lucky, maybe one day we will be allowed to travel. "Glück haben" means here being lucky, being fortunate enough to obtain something.

    In English there is good luck, bad luck. "Glück" in German always means good luck. For bad luck we have a special word: Unglück. Which may, however, also mean misery. "Im Unglück leben", for example, is to live in misery.

    Glück in this sense of the word ist closely related to chance. East German citizens under the Communist Regime were at the mercy of their rulers, who could deny or grant them permission to travel aboard. "Like flies to wanton boys are we to gods" - that was the basic feeling of most East Germans. It was "Glückssache", a matter of chance, whether or not they were allowed to travel, could purchase something they wanted, or were admitted to a university.

  • Is it a coincidence that the German language has the same word for happiness and for chance? Or does this ambiguity of the word Glück signal something about our national character?

    Maybe it does. When, as a pupil, I first read the canon of Human Rights in the US Declaration of Independece, I stumbled over "the pursuit of happiness". Happiness was, for me, something that .. . well, that "happens" to you. Not something that one can actively pursue, let alone the pursuit of which can be guaranteed by a Constitution.

    True, there is the German saying "Jeder ist seines Glückes Schmied" - everyone is the architect of his own happiness. But "happiness" may not be quite the correct translation. What the saying means is rather that we are the architects of our fortune. Fortune, in the sense of wealth, is something that you can get by pursuing it.

    But happiness, no. Not for most Germans.