Historian: Difficulty defining happiness gives it power, allure

Monday, March 19, 2007
Florida State University professor Darrin McMahon was shown in his office last month in Tallahassee, Fla. McMahon's book, "Happiness: A History" was named in January by The New York Times as one of the 100 notable books of 2006. It traces what the great thinkers of Western philosophy have thought about happiness. (PHIL COALE ~ Associated Press)

During the Enlightenment thinkers began to focus more on pleasure and the ability of people to pursue happiness.


The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Darrin McMahon still cannot define happiness after spending six years researching and writing a book about it.

While that's been a frustration, the Florida State University history professor said it's also what gives happiness its power and allure.

His book, "Happiness: A History" (Atlantic Monthly Press), was recently named by The New York Times as one of the 100 notable books of 2006.

It traces what the great thinkers of Western philosophy have thought about happiness. They include Aristotle, Socrates, Locke, Rousseau, Darwin, Marx, Freud and Thomas Jefferson, who famously counted "the pursuit of Happiness" as an "unalienable right" in the Declaration of Independence.

"The book is more about the pursuit than the attainment because in some ways you never get there," McMahon said in an interview. "Happiness, as I try to argue in the book, tends to slip away from you when you think about it too much."

He got the idea for the book while teaching at Columbia University in New York during the 1990s. The Berlin Wall had fallen and the world appeared headed for democracy. The stock market was booming and most people seemed to be prospering.

Luck or virtue

"Happiness was in the air," McMahon recalled. "Clinique, the cosmetics company, came out with a perfume called Happy; you could still remember the Bobby McFerrin song 'Don't Worry, Be Happy.' "

Happiness also dovetailed nicely with McMahon's academic focus on the 17th and 18th centuries, the period of Enlightenment, when Jefferson and others put a new spin on the subject.

Until then, most people didn't think of it as a right, unalienable or otherwise. It was more a matter of luck or virtue.

"The concept of luck is embedded in the very word happiness -- luck or fortune," McMahon said. "That's true in every Indo-European language. It's a really striking thing, all the way back to the ancient Greek and moving forward."

Happiness is linked to such words as happen and happenstance. Greek tragedies were filled with the idea that happiness was a matter of fate.

That began to change with Socrates, but the concept of humans having some control over their own happiness didn't flower until the 18th century.

Happy's history

"If you ask somebody today what happiness is, they'll inevitably tell you that it involves feeling good," McMahon said.

But it meant something more to the Greeks and Romans. Aristotle held that happiness was based on a lifetime of experience. You couldn't really tell if you were happy until you were dead. Many felt virtue was the key to happiness even though it took suffering to achieve. Cicero once said a virtuous man could be happy even while being tortured.

"It had to do with living a good life," McMahon said. "It had to be the whole record."

Christianity maintained the link between virtue and happiness. During the Enlightenment, though, thinkers began to focus more on pleasure and the ability of people to pursue, if not always attain, happiness.

"Jefferson stressed that virtue had a place in a happy life, but also healthy pleasures as it were," McMahon said.

While pleasure today has become virtually synonymous with happiness, McMahon believes the older concept of a life well lived has not been entirely lost.

"You push most people and they will admit that, well, it's not enough to be happy simply to be pleasured as it were," he said. "You need other things, and they'll talk about family and they'll talk about love and they'll talk about meaning and so forth."

He acknowledged his story of happiness is rooted in Western culture and wealthier societies. Societies in the past or today coping with famine, disease or warfare are unlikely to spend much time contemplating happiness.

"The pursuit of happiness is a privilege," McMahon said. "It's only when other things are taken care of -- food supply, a minimum of security and so forth -- that you can worry about something as frivolous as happiness."

Next up: Genius

McMahon sees no reason, though, for a sequel on the flip side of happiness because it's already been done.

"There have been so many books on melancholy and depression and so forth, but very little on happiness," he said. "Historians and people who study the past tend to be drawn a little bit to the dark side."

Instead, he has begun working on a book on genius, a concept nearly as ephemeral as happiness. Like happiness, it has a strong religious connection. To the Romans, genius was a spirit that acted as an intercessor between people and the gods. In Christianity, it became an angel or patron saint.

Just as happiness became a this-world pursuit in the 18th century, genius then "gets secularized as a human concept," McMahon said. He said even today a genius is "a kind of secular saint."

McMahon admits to having a grumpy side, particularly in the morning, and said he derives his own happiness from little things in life -- walking his dog, traveling, having people over for dinner, teaching a good class and working on his books.

"This is the sad thing," he said. "I wish I could tell you that having studied the history of happiness for six years I've got the magic bullet, but I don't."

One result, though, is that he's less obsessed with pursuing happiness.

"I just go about my business," he said, "and find that happiness will come to me."

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