"From Herodotus and Aristotle through Locke and Rousseau down to Darwin, Marx and Freud. The musings on happiness of these and dozens of lesser thinkers are lucidly presented in fine, sturdy prose that is, on the whole, a delight to read." Jim Holt, New York Times Book Review
Today, human beings tend to think of happiness as a natural right. But they haven’t always felt this way. For the ancient Greeks, happiness meant virtue. For the Romans, it implied prosperity and divine favor. For Christians, happiness was synonymous with God. Yet
978-0-8021-4289-4 • $20.00 • Paperback • Jan. 2007
it’s only within the past two hundred years that human beings have begun to think of happiness as not just an earthly possibility but also as an earthly entitlement, even an obligation. In this sweeping new book, historian Darrin M. McMahon argues that our
modern belief in happiness is the product of a dramatic revolution in human expectations carried out since the eighteenth century.
McMahon investigates how that fundamental transformation in thinking took place by surveying two thousand years of politics, culture, and thought. In ancient Greek tragedy, happiness was considered a gift of the gods. By the time of the Romans, its cherished
symbol, the phallus, was synonymous with pleasure and success. Central to the development of Christianity, happiness held out the promise of an end to all suffering in the eternal bliss of the world to come. When that promise was extended from heaven to earth in the age of the Enlightenment, men and women faced the novel prospect that they couldin fact shouldbe happy in this life as a matter of course. Ultimately, the Enlightenment’s faith in happiness led to its consecration in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man. But the pursuit of happiness also lay behind the tragic utopian experiments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that vowed to eliminate misery and extend joy to all. Ranging from psychology to genetics to the invention of the “smiley face,” McMahon follows the great pursuit of happiness through to the present day, showing how our modern search continues to generate new forms of pleasure, but also,
paradoxically, new forms of pain.
In the tradition of works by Peter Gay and Simon Schama, Happiness draws on a multitude of sources, including art and architecture, poetry and scripture, music and theology, and literature and myth, to offer a sweeping intellectual history of man’s most elusive yet coveted goal.
Darrin M. McMahon on happiness:
I was living in New York in the roaring 1990s and happinessits promise, its possibility, its allureseemed to be everywhere around me. “Don’t worry, be happy,” intoned the song. The cosmetics company Clinique even released a fragrance“Happy”whose scent captured the smell of the times. I was also teaching at Columbia University then, reading all those authors I’d long claimed to know but didn’t really: Plato, Aristotle, etc. In book after book, happiness just leaped off the page, and it smelled very different than it did in Manhattan. I started sniffing around some more, and well, I’ve been on the trail ever since.
How do you define happiness?
What I try to do is show how the meaning of happiness has changed over time, while always retaining a little of its past. For the ancient Greeks happiness meant virtue. For the Romans, it implied prosperity and the favor of the gods. For Christians, happiness was synonymous with God himself. For many today, happiness means pleasure and good feeling. But there are definitely some constants. Throughout history, happiness has been equated regularly with the highest human calling, the most perfect human state. Strangely, too, the word in every Western language is a cognate with “luck,” as if to imply that to be perfectly happy we need a little help from the stars.