THE HISTORY OF HAPPINESS
DARRIN M. McMAHON
Darrin McMahon is a professor of history at Florida
State University and the author of Happiness:
A History. He originally wrote this article for
Greater Good, the UC Berkeley-based magazine that covers
research into the roots of compassion, happiness and altruism.
It is republished through a special collaboration between Greater
Good and YES!
magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses
powerful ideas with practical actions.
be borrowed, stolen or inherited?
Is it earned by meritorious works
or granted by the obscure operations of grace?
A. O. Scott
it is probably fair to assume that most Americans today consider
happiness not only something that would be nice to have, but
something that we really ought to have—and, moreover,
something that’s within our power to bring about, if only
we set our minds to it. We can be happy, we tell ourselves,
teeth gritted. We should be happy. We will be happy.
is a modern article of faith. But it is also a relatively recent
idea in the West which dates from the 17th and 18th centuries,
a time that ushered in a dramatic shift in what human beings
could legitimately hope to expect in and from their lives. People
prior to the late 17th century thought happiness was a matter
of luck or virtue or divine favor. Today we think of happiness
as a right and a skill that can be developed. This has been
liberating, in some respects, because it asks us to strive to
improve our lots in life, individually and collectively. But
there have been downsides as well. It seems that when we want
to be happy all of the time, we can forget that the pursuit
of happiness can entail struggle, sacrifice, even pain.
has increasingly been thought to be more about getting little
infusions of pleasure, about feeling good rather than being
good, less about living the well-lived life than about experiencing
the well-felt moment.
reveals ancient definitions of happiness. It is a striking fact
that in every Indo-European language, without exception, going
all the way back to ancient Greek, the word for happiness is
a cognate with the word for luck. Hap is the Old Norse
and Old English root of happiness, and it just means luck or
chance, as did the Old French heur, giving us bonheur,
good fortune or happiness. German gives us the word Gluck,
which to this day means both happiness and chance.
does this linguistic pattern suggest? For a good many ancient
peoples—and for many others long after that—happiness
was not something you could control. It was in the hands of
the gods, dictated by Fate or Fortune, controlled by the stars,
not something that you or I could really count upon or make
for ourselves. Happiness, literally, was what happened to us,
and that was ultimately out of our hands. As the monk in Chaucer’s
Canterbury Tales declares:
In other words, the wheel of fortune controls our happenstance,
and hence our happiness.
were, of course, other ways of thinking about happiness. Those
who have studied Greek or Roman philosophy will know that happiness—what
the Greeks called, in one of several words, eudaimonia—was
the goal of all Classical philosophy, beginning with Socrates
and Plato, then taken up even more centrally by Aristotle, then
featured prominently in all the major “schools”
of Classical thought, including that of the Epicureans, Stoics,
and so forth. In their view, happiness could be earned, a perspective
that anticipates our modern one.
there is a crucial difference between their ideas of happiness
and ours. For most of these Classical philosophers, happiness
is never simply a function of good feeling—of what puts
a smile on our face—but rather of living good lives, lives
that will almost certainly include a good deal of pain. The
most dramatic illustration of this is the Roman statesman and
philosopher Cicero’s claim that the happy man will be
happy even on the torture wrack.
ancients thought of happiness not as an emotional state but
as an outcome of moral comportment.
sounds ludicrous to us today—and perhaps it is—but
it very nicely captures the way the ancients thought of happiness,
not as an emotional state but as an outcome of moral comportment.
“Happiness is a life lived according to virtue,”
Aristotle famously says. It is measured in lifetimes, not moments.
And it has far more to do with how we order ourselves and our
lives as a whole than anything that might happen individually
to any one of us.
these presuppositions, the ancients tended to agree that very
few would ever succeed in being happy, because happiness takes
an incredible amount of work, discipline, and devotion, and
most people, in the end, are simply not up to the task. The
happy are what Aristotle calls “happy few.” They
are, if you like, the ethical elite. This is not a democratic
conception of happiness.
the Greek and Roman traditions, we have Jewish and Christian
ideas about happiness. In the prevailing Christian understanding,
happiness can occur in one of three circumstances. It can be
found in the past in a lost Golden Age, in the Garden of Eden
when Adam and Eve were perfectly content. It can be revealed
in the future—the millennium when Christ will return and
the Kingdom of God will genuinely be at hand. Or we can find
happiness in heaven, when the saints shall know the “perfect
felicity,” as Thomas Aquinas puts it, the pure bliss of
union with God. Strictly speaking, this is the happiness of
so in the dominant Christian worldview, happiness is not something
we can obtain in this life. It is not our natural state. On
the contrary, it is an exalted condition, reserved for the elect
in a time outside of time, at the end of history. This is the
opposite of today’s egalitarian, feel-good-now conception
the 17th and 18th centuries, when a revolution in human expectations
overthrew these old ideas of happiness. It is in this time that
the French Encyclopédie, the Bible of the European Enlightenment,
declares in its article on happiness that everyone has a right
to be happy. It is in this time that Thomas Jefferson declares
the right to pursue happiness to be a self-evident truth, while
his colleague George Mason, in the Virginia Declaration of Rights,
speaks of pursuing and obtaining happiness as a natural endowment
and right. And it is in this time that the French revolutionary
leader St. Just can stand up during the height of the Jacobin
revolution in France in 1794 and declare: “Happiness is
a new idea in Europe.” In many ways it was.
perspective lies behind our belief that suffering is inherently
wrong, and that all people, in all places, should have the opportunity,
the right, to be happy.
the English philosopher and revolutionary John Locke declared
at the end of the 17th century that the “business of man
is to be happy,” he meant that we shouldn’t assume
that suffering is our natural lot, and that we shouldn’t
have to apologize for our pleasures here on earth. On the contrary,
we should work to increase them. It wasn’t a sin to enjoy
our bodies, his contemporaries began to argue. It wasn’t
gluttony and greed to work to improve our standards of living.
It wasn’t a sign of luxury and depravity to pursue pleasures
of the flesh, and whatever other kind as well. Pleasure was
good. Pain was bad. We should maximize the one and minimize
the other, yielding the greatest happiness for the greatest
was a liberating perspective. Starting in Locke’s time,
men and women in the West dared to think of happiness as something
more than a divine gift, less fortuitous than fortune, less
exalted than a millenarian dream. For the first time in human
history, comparatively large numbers of people were exposed
to the novel prospect that they might not have to suffer as
an unfailing law of the universe, that they could—and
should—expect happiness in the form of good feeling, and
pleasure as a right of existence. This is a prospect that has
gradually spread from the originally rather narrow universe
of white men to include women, people of color, children—indeed,
humanity as a whole.
new orientation towards happiness was, as I say, liberating
in many respects. I would argue that it continues to lie behind
some of our most noble humanitarian sentiments—the belief
that suffering is inherently wrong, and that all people, in
all places, should have the opportunity, the right, to be happy.
there is a dark side to this vision of happiness as well, one
that may help explain why so many of us are snapping up books
about happiness and coming to happiness conferences, searching
for an emotion that we worry is absent from our lives.
all its pleasures and benefits, this new perspective on happiness
as a given right, tends to imagine happiness not as something
won through moral cultivation, carried out over the course of
a well-lived life, but as something “out there”
that could be pursued, caught, and consumed. Happiness has increasingly
been thought to be more about getting little infusions of pleasure,
about feeling good rather than being good, less about living
the well-lived life than about experiencing the well-felt moment.
might focus less on our own personal happiness and instead on
the happiness of those around us, for relentless focus on one’s
own happiness has the potential to be self-defeating.
get me wrong, there is nothing bad about feeling good. But I
would suggest that something of value may have been lost or
forgotten in our transition to modern ideas of happiness. We
can’t feel good all the time; nor, I think, should we
want to. Nor should we assume that happiness can be had (maybe
a better word?) without a certain degree of effort, and possibly
even sacrifice and pain. These are things that the older traditions
knew—in the West and the East alike—and that we
Today, science is rediscovering the validity of ancient perspectives
on happiness—that there are important connections between
hope and happiness, for example, or between gratitude and forgiving
and happiness, altruism and happiness. Science is often painted
as being opposed to matters of the spirit, but new discoveries
by researchers like Michael McCullough, Robert Emmons, and many
others remind us how important non-materialistic, spiritual
cultivation is to our happiness and well-being. It is all the
more important to revive and cultivate this older wisdom today,
given that so many of us assume that we ought to be happy as
a matter of course, that this is our natural state.
if you think about it, this idea of happiness as a natural state
creates a curious problem. What if I’m not happy? Does
that mean that I’m unnatural? Am I ill, or bad, or deficient?
Is there something wrong with me? Is there something wrong with
the society in which I live? These are all symptoms of a condition
that I call the unhappiness of not being happy, and it is a
peculiarly modern condition.
cure this condition, we might focus less on our own personal
happiness and instead on the happiness of those around us, for
relentless focus on one’s own happiness has the potential
to be self-defeating. The 19th century philosopher John Stuart
Mill once said, “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and
you cease to be so.” Whether that is really true or not,
I don’t know. But given that we live in a world that asks
this question of us every day, it is a paradox worth pondering.
Defense of Heidegger
of a Chronophobe
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