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What a baker from ancient Pompeii can teach us about happiness

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What a baker from ancient Pompeii can teach us about happiness

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What a baker from ancient Pompeii can teach us about happiness

 | Breaking News Updates

By claiming felicitas for his own home and business, the Pompeian baker could therefore have exercised a name-it-claim philosophy, hoping for such blessings of happiness for his business and his life.

But just beyond this view of money and power as a source of happiness, there was a cruel irony.

Felicitas and Felix were names commonly used for female and male slaves. For example, Antonius Felix, the ruler of Judea in the first century, was a former slave – clearly his luck had changed – while Felicitas was the name of the famous female slave martyred with Perpetua in 203 AD.

The Romans viewed slaves as proof of their masters’ superior status and the embodiment of their happiness. Seen in this light, happiness appears as a zero-sum game, mixed with power, prosperity and domination. Felicitas in the Roman world had a price, and slaves paid it to bestow happiness on their owners.

Suffice it to say that for slaves, wherever happiness dwelled, it was not in the Roman Empire.

Where does happiness really reside?

In today’s society, can happiness exist only at someone else’s expense? Where does happiness lie, as rates of depression and other mental illnesses skyrocket and workdays lengthen?

Over the past two decades, American workers have been working more and more hours. A 2020 Gallup poll found that 44% of full-time employees worked more than 45 hours per week, while 17% of people worked 60 or more hours per week.

The result of this overworked culture is that happiness and success really seem like a zero-sum equation. There is a cost, often human, with work and family competing for time and attention, and with the personal happiness of the victim anyway. This was true long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Happiness studies seem to become more popular during times of high societal stress. It may not be a coincidence that the oldest happiness study, administered by Harvard University, came about during the Great Depression. In 1938, researchers measured the physical and mental health of 268 second-year students at the time and, for 80 years, followed these men and some of their descendants.

Their main discovery? “Close relationships, more than money or fame … make people happy throughout their lives.” This includes both a happy marriage and family, and a close community of supportive friends. It is important to note that the relationships highlighted in the study are those based on love, care and equality, rather than abuse and exploitation.

Just as the Great Depression motivated the Harvard study, the current pandemic inspired social scientist Arthur Brooks to launch, in April 2020, a weekly column on happiness called “How to Build a Life”. In her first article in the series, Brooks repeatedly explores research showing that faith and meaningful work – in addition to close relationships – can improve happiness.

Find happiness in chaos and disorder

Brooks’ advice correlates with the findings of the World 2021 Happiness Report, which noted “an increase of about 10% in the number of people who said they were worried or sad the day before.”

Faith, relationships, and meaningful work all contribute to a sense of security and stability. All were victims of the pandemic. The Pompeian baker, who chose to place his plaque in his workplace, would probably have agreed on the important link between happiness, work and faith. And while he was not experiencing, as far as historians can tell, a pandemic, he was no stranger to the stresses of society.

It’s possible that his choice of decor reflects an underlying stream of anxiety – understandable, given some of the political turmoil in Pompeii and the empire as a whole over the city’s past 20 years. At the time of the last volcanic eruption of AD 79, we know that some Pompeiians were still rebuilding and restoring after the earthquake of AD 62. The baker’s life must have been filled with reminders of instability and impending disaster. Maybe the plaque was an attempt to combat those fears.

After all, would truly happy people feel the need to put up a sign proclaiming the presence of happiness in their home?

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Or maybe I over-analyze this object, and it was just a mass-produced trinket – a first-century version of a “Home Sweet Home” or “Live, Laugh, Love” sign – that the baker or his wife picked up on a whim.

And yet, the plaque recalls an important truth: people in ancient times had dreams and aspirations for happiness, just like people today. Vesuvius may have ended the dreams of our bakers, but the pandemic doesn’t need to have such a permanent impact on ours. And while the stress of the past year and a half may seem overwhelming, there hasn’t been a better time to re-prioritize and remember to put people and relationships first.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Nadejda Williams, University of Western Georgia.

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Nadezhda Williams does not work, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliation beyond her academic position.

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