Commentary Magazine

Happiness: A History by Darrin M. McMahon

Happiness: A History
by Darrin M. McMahon
Atlantic Monthly Press. 560 pp. $27.50

You’d have to be a little crazy to attempt writing a book like this one. Although happiness is a subject of central importance to our existence, and a matter of irrepressibly consuming interest, many of the most reliable truths about it inevitably come across as flat and trite, if not embarrassingly childish. Surely, we think to ourselves, this elusive thing we all pant after cannot have been captured in a Hallmark card or in the lyrics of a country-western song. That would be too much to bear.

And yet it may be true. Years ago, I had a conversation with an unhappy friend, a rather theatrical and self-absorbed character who was then buckling under the burden of his crumbling marriage and was badly in need of straight advice. As I began to offer some rather basic suggestions, I was cut off with an impatient outburst: “Why,” he exploded, “must I live in such a banal world?” It was hard to tell whether his distress owed more to the marriage or to the banality.

Actually it was both. My friend and his marriage were suffering from his failure to grasp one of the few maxims about happiness that one can repeat without wincing: happiness is a matter of having the right expectations. When one stubbornly expects the world itself to be extravagantly different from what it is—whether lesser or greater—the result is rarely a happy one. The mortifying fact is that we often get better guidance in such matters from Dale Carnegie (“Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get”) than from the combined profundity and smart-alecky wit of all the world’s Friedrich Nietzsches and Nora Ephrons combined.

Which is perhaps why intellectuals prefer to deal with the subject of happiness as elliptically and aphoristically as possible, with a light combination of irony and indirectness. Far easier and safer, not to mention more respectable, to dwell on unhappiness, in all of its infinite variety, and give happiness a chance to sneak in quietly and unnoticed, through the cracks between the double negatives—which is, not uncommonly, what happens in life itself.



Now, however, the historian Darrin McMahon has had the audacity not only to deal with the subject of happiness directly, and to do so at book length, but to propose a novel argument about it. We tend to think of happiness, and the quest for it, as one of the timeless and immutable goals of human existence. But McMahon argues otherwise: today’s idea of happiness, he writes, has a history, a long and varied trajectory that, when revealed, shows our age’s approach to be far from the norm. That being so, we might benefit greatly from taking account of the rather different perspective provided by the past.

In the wrong hands, such a book could have been utterly deadly, particularly if, as in this case, the author happens to be an academic historian whose method revolves around the careful explication of classic texts, from Plato and Aristotle to Freud and Beckett. Yet Happiness: A History turns out to be a delight: a sophisticated, wise, learned, funny, and thoroughly absorbing romp through the cultural and moral history of the West.

McMahon’s account begins with the universe of Homeric epic and Sophoclean tragedy. For the ancient Greeks, the world, governed by forces beyond human ken, was a cruel and mysterious place in which man had to make his way in the face of feckless gods and pitiless fate. In such a world, happiness in life could be had only on the fly, and was revocable at a moment’s notice by incomprehensible events that might or might not be related to questions of justice or merit. An adage heard again and again in classical literature is that no man should be counted happy until his death. Happiness was adjudged to be less a subjective state of joy or well-being than “a characterization of an entire life that can be reckoned only at death”—that is, when one was no longer around to experience it.

But it was also in ancient Greece, and specifically in democratic Athens, that a different approach began to emerge—a product of the political and social experience of self-rule. As McMahon contends, this experience established and reinforced the idea that free men could, through rational inquiry and persuasion, find ways to decide things for themselves and thereby exert some control over the conditions of their existence—thus bringing the question of happiness squarely into view. In Plato’s Euthydemus, Socrates takes it as a given that all men desire happiness, and that a right ordering of our lives can produce such happiness. Aristotle sees happiness as the proper end, the telos, of human existence, a flourishing of the soul that naturally flows from the correct ordering of its activities according to the universally intelligible standard of reason. Men are, in some sense, meant to be happy in this world, and there should be no mystery about how to get there.

Of course, in the conception of these philosophers, only a very few exceptional men could ever hope to attain such happiness. For much of the rest of mankind, over much of human history, happiness has not been something achieved but something that happens to one—as one might deduce from the etymological link between the word “happiness” and the Middle English “happ,” from which we get words like “happenstance” and “perhaps.” And the Christian view of happiness, grounded as it was in a more ambivalent attitude toward “the world” itself, complicated matters still further.

The emphasis in Christianity on the doctrine of original sin, and on the consequent need for divine grace as a means of salvation, seemed to remove from individuals the power to effect their own happiness. Similarly, the search for a perpetual felicity in God’s presence militated against the enjoyment of this world’s passing felicities in favor of a focus on the bread of heaven and the rewards (or punishments) of the afterlife. Although the otherworldly harshness of this doctrine was inevitably softened and modified, notably in the works of Thomas Aquinas in the high Middle Ages, at bottom the Christian understanding of man suggested that unhappiness, not happiness, was his natural condition.



The subsequent twists and turns in the early stages of the story told by McMahon, and the overlappings of various positions, are too subtle and various to cover adequately in a brief space. Generally McMahon treats these materials with care and insight, though one wishes he had given more attention to the distinctive view of classical Judaism, which he largely subsumes under the Christian perspective. But what is crystal clear is the decisive intellectual change that had come about by the 18th century with the advent of the Enlightenment. From this point on, we can perceive the outlines of the idea of happiness that dominates our own era.

According to that idea, ably sketched by McMahon, happiness is something that all human beings can rightly aspire to, in the here and now, as a natural expression of their human endowment. By the time of the American Revolution, the God-ordained naturalness of the “pursuit of happiness” was one of the “self-evident” truths to which Thomas Jefferson felt free to refer in the Declaration of Independence. There is, McMahon states, “no greater modern assumption than that it lies within our power to find happiness.”

But the story does not end there, either. Much of the rest of Happiness is devoted to a consideration of the immense difficulties entailed in this modern idea. As McMahon shows, the self-conscious pursuit of happiness has often led to the deepest kind of unhappiness, only intensified now by the belief that, since the achievement of happiness lies entirely within our power, any modicum of unhappiness we feel must either be our own fault or the fault of some botched intervention, medical or otherwise. When one’s expectations have been raised sky-high, the unavoidable reversals of life suddenly become intolerable.

Indeed, the Enlightenment project’s utopian aspiration, at first put forward as happiness’s most ardent advocate, may in the end have proved to be its deadliest enemy. Some of modernity’s most influential thinkers have even gone so far as to renounce the very possibility of happiness altogether. “The program of becoming happy,” wrote Sigmund Freud in one of his categorical moods, “cannot be fulfilled.” And even when he was sounding more optimistic, Freud’s mechanistic prescriptions did little to encourage the sense of human dignity and purposefulness: “Happiness, in the reduced sense in which we recognize it as possible, is a problem of the economics of the individual’s libido.” (One can be grateful that Jefferson didn’t put that into the Declaration.)



All of which tends to suggest that the ancients knew things about man that modernity may have managed to forget but has failed to repeal. One of the most powerful witnesses to this fact, in McMahon’s telling, was Aldous Huxley, whose novel Brave New World (1932) continues to grow in stature as our technologically proficient world comes increasingly to resemble the one he portrayed there. In that world, as one of Huxley’s characters puts it, “everybody’s happy,” thanks to endless free sex, endless consumer goods, endless youth, mood-altering drugs, and all-consuming entertainment. But the novel’s hero, the Savage, stubbornly proclaims “the right to be unhappy” and dares to believe that there can be more to life than pleasure: “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” In the end, the Savage is put on display as if he were a zoo animal: the Last Man.

Huxley knew there was something nobly incorrigible in the human spirit, a restlessness built into the constitution of our humanity that could not be stilled by a regime of mere good feeling, or willingly be sacrificed for its sake—unless, that is, one was willing to give up on the peculiarly betwixt-and-between condition of humanity itself. That is why McMahon singles out, as Huxley’s most prescient and also most disturbing insight, the fear “that in the relentless search for happiness, human beings [will] endeavor to alter their very nature, tampering with the last bastion of fate: their genetic constitution.” Should that happen, the search for human happiness will culminate in the elimination of the human race as we know it.



This book is a remarkable achievement for a young scholar. Rarely have I encountered such an ambitious work of historical writing that is at once so instructive and so entertaining. Throughout, McMahon strikes just the right balance of seriousness and irony, of sympathy and detachment, capturing that elusive combination of nobility, cupidity, and futility that has always attended the human quest for earthly contentment.

Nor can I think of a recent book that does a better job of making a case for the central importance of ideas in history. As McMahon shows repeatedly, the pattern of expectations to which the pursuit of happiness conforms itself in any given age—the age’s vision of feasible felicity, so to speak, and the means one uses to reach it—is itself a product of the dominant contemporary ideas: ideas about life, death, God, nature, causality, moral responsibility, and human possibility. In a word, what we believe about the world’s structure and meaning will determine what we think happiness is, and how we can act to gain it for ourselves.

Therein, of course, lies the dilemma. The temptation pinpointed by Huxley is not so different from the temptation pursued to such disastrous ends by the various totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century, which sought to produce “happy” societies by abolishing the independence of the individual. But our own Western liberal democracies, infatuated with the undisputed blessings of technology, have themselves hardly been immune to the same temptation. In our “quest to live as gods,” as McMahon rightly concludes his sobering and greatly enlightening book, we may be leaving much of our humanity behind, and one of the things left behind may be happiness itself.


About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, contributed “Is Conservatism Finished?” to the January COMMENTARY. His latest book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.

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