Story last updated at 4/15/2009 - 11:03 am
On warm, sunny days in Southeast we seem inclined to walk around with big goofy grins on our faces. I find myself saying things like, "I'm happy as a clam!"
Which led me to wonder: What makes clams so happy? How did their happiness become a standard for all of us to strive towards?
My research into the psychology of bivalve mollusks led me to the origin of the expression "happy as a clam" - it's actually a shortened version of the original "happy as a clam at high tide." Aha.
Clams, like most residents of the intertidal zone, have limited abilities to move. The rising water provides nourishment and protection. In Southeast, we've all heard the expression, "When the tide is out the table is set" - which can't make for a very happy clam.
So clams are presumed to be happiest when they are not left high and dry and vulnerable at low tides, but when they are in the nourishing, protecting water. I'll buy that.
Clams don't have any control over their happiness. It's completely dependent on tidal forces.
Linguistically, I would wager that the expression was shortened to "happy as a clam" unconsciously, as so much of our language gradually changes over time. But, back to mollusk psychology, what if the expression changed because we actually perceive clams to be happy all the time?
Even when the tide is out, clams can rest assured that it will come back in. Happiness and security will return. If we could similarly be assured that our happiness would return regularly, we might be quite a bit less anxious.
While we're delving into origins, how about this idea of being "happy"? It has its root in luck, as in "happenstance." To be happy was originally to be lucky.
Of course, the meaning has shifted over time, as meanings are wont to do, but back at the time when people talked of being "as happy as a clam in high water," they probably had a bit more of the idea of "luck" in mind.
After all, the clam at high tide is lucky. He might feel joy, but that joy is due to forces beyond his control - luck, you might say.
Although I worried when beginning this investigation that I'd find I'd been using "happy as a clam" incorrectly, I think it's perfectly suitable to use it on a sunny day. While sunny days aren't really caused by chance, they are caused by forces beyond our control.
And like the clam who remains happy even when the tide is out, when the sky clouds over again we can rest assured that the sun will eventually return. Maybe even when it's cloudy out we can still be happy as clams.