It is said that that a picture is worth a thousand words. In an attempt to better and more quickly convey complex abstracts, ideas, and concepts, people of various cultures have made use of signs and symbols.
And this too goes in the case of emotions such as joy, merriment, and happiness.
In this article, we’ve compiled together a list of the 24 most important symbols of happiness and joy in history.
Table of Contents
- 1. Smile (Universal)
- 2. Dragonfly (Native Americans)
- 3. Rose (Greco-Roman Civilization)
- 4. Ship’s Rudder (Ancient Rome)
- 5. Dharma Chakra (Buddhism)
- 6. Shtreimel (Hasidism)
- 7. Bluebird (Europe)
- 8. Shuangxi (China)
- 9. Sunflowers (West)
- 10. Lily of the Valley (Great Britain)
- 11. Two Golden Fish (Buddhism)
- 12. Gye W’ani (West Africa)
- 13. Buddhist flag (Buddhism)
- 14. Wunjo (Norse)
- 15. Full Moon (Romans)
- 16. Thyrsus (Greco-Roman Civilization)
- 17. Biwa (Japan)
- 18. Coca Plant (Inca)
- 19. Kartika (Buddhism)
- 20. Coyote (Aztec)
- 21. Brick (China)
- 22. Cloth Sack (East Asia)
- 23. Grain Ear (Baltics)
- 24. Badger and Magpie (China)
- Over to You
1. Smile (Universal)
In human cultures, among the most recognized signs of joy, pleasure, and happiness is the smile.
Smiling is actually known to carry a strong and positive psychological impact, with others perceiving you as less threatening and more likable.
With that said, subtle differences do exist in various cultures in how a person’s smile is perceived.
For instance, in East Asia, smiling too much at another person is seen as a sign of irritation and suppressed anger.
Meanwhile, in some European countries such as Russia and Norway, a person smiling at strangers is often perceived as suspicious, lacking in intelligence, or American. (1)
2. Dragonfly (Native Americans)
This symbolism isn’t unsurprisingly; the dragonfly spends much of its early life underwater and then becomes fully airborne as an adult.
This metamorphosis is perceived as one mentally maturing and losing the binds of negative emotions and thoughts that had constrained them. (2) (3)
3. Rose (Greco-Roman Civilization)
The deity had a particularly important role in Roman mythology, being the ancestor of all Roman people through her son, Aeneas. (4) (5)
4. Ship’s Rudder (Ancient Rome)
In the Roman Empire, a ship’s rudder was frequently depicted alongside Laetitia, the goddess of happiness.
This association wasn’t random. Among the Romans, it was believed the foundation of their empire’s happiness lay in its ability to dominate and direct the course of events.
Alternately, the rudder could have been used as a reference to the empire’s dependence on grain imports from its southern regions such as Egypt. (6)
5. Dharma Chakra (Buddhism)
The Dharma Chakra, depicted as an eight-spoked wheel, is a highly sacred symbol in many Dharmic faiths.
In Buddhism, it represents the Noble Eightfold Path – practices that lead a person to a state of true liberation and happiness known as Nirvana. (7)
The Buddhists have held a very specific view on what constitutes true happiness.
In the Buddhist context, it can only be achieved by overcoming cravings in all forms, achievable by practicing the Eightfold path. (8)
6. Shtreimel (Hasidism)
The shtreimel is a type of fur hat worn by orthodox Jews, most notably by the members of the Hasidic sect, of which it has become a sort of symbol. (9)
Hasidism, also sometimes referred to as Chassidism, is a Jewish movement that emerged in the 18th century.
An essential element to the Hasidic way of life is for a person to be joyful. It is believed that a happy person is much more capable of serving God than when being depressed or sad.
In the words of the founder of the movement, happiness was considered “a biblical commandment, a mitzvah.” (10) (11)
7. Bluebird (Europe)
In Europe, bluebirds have been frequently associated with happiness and good tidings.
In ancient Lorraine folklore, bluebirds were perceived as a harbinger of happiness.
In the 19th century, inspired by these tales, many European writers and poets incorporated a similar theme in their works of literature.
In certain Christian beliefs, bluebirds were also thought to bring messages from the divine. (12) (13)
8. Shuangxi (China)
Shuangxi is a Chinese calligraphic symbol that literally translates to ‘Double Happy’. It is frequently employed as a good luck charm, being employed in traditional ornaments and decorations, particularly for such events as marriage.
The symbol is comprised of two compressed copies of the Chinese character 喜 (joy). It’s typically colored in red or gold – the former itself representing happiness, beauty, and good luck and the latter representing richness and nobility. (14) (15)
9. Sunflowers (West)
Since their first discovery by the early European explorers, this magnificent flower took little time to grow immensely popular across the Atlantic.
The sunflower as a symbol holds many positive associations, including warmth and happiness.
Likely this may have arisen from the flower’s resemblance to the sun.
It is a common sight for sunflowers to be presented or used as decoration on merry events such as weddings, baby showers, and birthdays. (16)
10. Lily of the Valley (Great Britain)
Also known as the May lily, this springtime flower since Victorian times in Great Britain has come to symbolize happiness, with it having been among the most favorite plants of Queen Victoria as well as many other royals.
In English folklore, it is told that when St. Leonard of Sussex managed to slew his dragon adversary, these flowers blossomed in commemoration of his victory everywhere the dragon’s blood had been spilled.
At one time, it was also used as a protective charm, with people believing it be able to ward off evil spirits. (17) (18)
11. Two Golden Fish (Buddhism)
In Dharmic traditions, a pair of golden fish is an Ashtamangala (sacred attribute), with each fish representing the two main sacred rivers – the Ganges and Yamuna Nadi.
This stems from the observation that fishes can swim freely in the water, with no worries of the unknown dangers that lurk in the depths.
In a similar fashion, a person must move around in this world of suffering and delusion with their mind in peace and free of worry. (19) (20)
12. Gye W’ani (West Africa)
In Akan society, adinkra are a set of symbols employed to convey various abstract concepts and ideas.
The Adinkra symbols are a ubiquitous part of West African culture, being found on their clothing, architecture, and monuments.
The Adinkra symbol of joy, happiness, and laugher is the Gye W’ani, which means to enjoy yourself, do whatever makes you happy, and live your life to the fullest.
The Adinkra symbol is shaped like a Queen chess piece, likely because a queen lives her life without much worries or limitations. (21) (22)
13. Buddhist flag (Buddhism)
Created in the 19th century, the Buddhist flag is meant to serve as the universal symbol of the religion.
Each individual color on the flag represents an aspect of Buddha:
- blue symbolizes the spirit of universal compassion, peace, and happiness
- yellow represents the Middle Way, which avoids the two extremes
- red represents the blessings of practice which are wisdom, dignity, virtue, and fortune
- white conveys the purity of Dharma leading to liberation
- orange depicts the wisdom in Buddha’s teachings.
Lastly, the sixth vertical band, made from the combination of these colors refers to Pabbhassara – the Truth of Buddha’s teachings. (23) (24)
14. Wunjo (Norse)
Runes were symbols used to write Germanic languages before the adoption of the Latin Alphabet.
With that said, runes were more than just a sound or a letter; they were a representation of certain cosmological principles or concepts.
For instance, the letter Wunjo (ᚹ) signified joy, happiness, satisfaction as well as close companionship. (25)
15. Full Moon (Romans)
The full moon may have been the symbol of the Anna Perenna, the Roman deity associated with the New Year as well as renewal, long life, and plenty.
Her festivals were held on the Ides of March (March 15), which marked the first full moon of the Roman calendar.
Both public and private sacrifices would be offered to her on the occasion to secure a healthy and happy new year. (26) (27)
16. Thyrsus (Greco-Roman Civilization)
A thyrsus was a type of staff made from the stem of giant fennel and often topped with a pine cone or grapevines.
It was the symbol and weapon of the Greco-Roman deity, Dionysus-Bacchus, the god of wine, prosperity, insanity, ritual madness as well as pleasure and enjoyment. (28)
Carrying the staff formed an important part of rituals and rites associated with the deity. (29)
17. Biwa (Japan)
In Japanese mythology, Benten is one of the Shichi-fuku-jin – the seven Japanese deities associated with good fortune and happiness. (30)
Individually, she is the goddess of everything that flows, including water, time, speech, wisdom, and music.
Her cult is actually a foreign import, having her origin from the Hindu goddess, Saraswathi.
Like her Hindu counterpart, Benten is also often depicted holding a musical instrument that being the biwa, a type of Japanese lute. (31)
18. Coca Plant (Inca)
Cocamama was an Andean deity associated with happiness, health, and recreational drug-taking, and her official symbol was the Coca plant.
According to Inca folklore, Cocamama was originally a flirtatious woman who was cut in half by jealous lovers and subsequently was transformed into the world’s first coca plant. (32)
In Incan society, the plant was often chewed as a recreational mild narcotic and was also used by priests in ritual offerings known as K’intus. (33)
19. Kartika (Buddhism)
A Kartika is a type of a small, crescent-shaped flaying knife particularly used in tantric rituals and ceremonies of Vajrayana Buddhism.
It is also among the most commonly depicted symbols of the wrathful tantric deities such as Ekajati, the protector goddess of the most secret mantra, and is associated with spreading joy and helping people overcome personal obstacles to the path of enlightenment. (34) (35)
20. Coyote (Aztec)
The coyote is a mid sized species of canine native to the Americas. It has a reputation of being greatly cunning thanks to its intelligence and adaptability. (36)
In numerous pre-Columbian cultures, the coyote was often associated with their trickster deity. (37)
In the Aztec religion, for instance, the animal was one aspect of Huehuecóyotl, the god of music, dance, mischief, and partying.
Unlike the depiction of the trickster deity in many Old-World mythos, Huehuecóyotl was a relatively benign god.
A common theme to his stories is of him playing tricks on other gods as well as humans, which would ultimately backfire and actually cause him more trouble than his intended victims. (38)
21. Brick (China)
In Chinese mythology, Fude Zhengshen is a god of prosperity, happiness, and merit.
He is also one of the oldest gods, and thus, a deity of deep earth (houtu). (39) While he bears no official symbols, one object that could be employed as his representation is the brick.
In Chinese folklore, one poor family wanted to build an altar for him while he was still a minor deity, but they could only afford four pieces of bricks.
So, they used three of the bricks as wall and one as the roof. Unexpectedly, the family became very rich with his blessing.
Zhengshen’s kindness is said to have moved Mazu, the sea goddess, so much that she ordered her servants to pick him up to heaven. (40)
22. Cloth Sack (East Asia)
Many East Asian societies, even if not practicing Buddhism today, have had their cultures greatly shaped by the religion.
This includes many of their mythological figures. One of such is Budai (literally meaning ‘cloth sack’), more commonly known in the West as the laughing Buddha. (41)
Depicted as a fat-bellied smiling monk carrying a cloth sack, his figure is associated with contention, prosperity, and abundance.
According to legends, Budai was a real historical figure with a gift for accurately predicting people’s fortune.
When he died, he is said to have left a note claiming himself to be an incarnation of Maitreya (future Buddha). (42)
23. Grain Ear (Baltics)
Until well into the late medieval ages, much of what is today the Baltic region was inhabited by pagan cultures.
Not much is known about their culture and customs because the conquering Christian armies were only interested in converting the region. (43)
From the scant few resources that have survived, we have retraced what we can of how the pre-Baltic society has been.
Among the most important deities that they worshipped was Potrimpo, the god of the seas, spring, grain, and happiness.
In Baltic iconography, he was typically depicted as merry young men wearing a wreath of grain ears. (44)
24. Badger and Magpie (China)
In Chinese culture, the badger signifies happiness, and the magpie represents the joy connected with social aspects such as attending celebrations and merry events.
Portrayed together, the two animals symbolize happiness both on earth and in the heavens (sky).
However, if the magpie is depicted as being perched that it instead is meant to signify future happiness. (45) (46)
View Badger and Magpie artwork here, artwork by Bridget Syms.
Over to You
Do you know of any other important symbols of happiness and joy in history? Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll consider adding them to the list above.
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