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Happiness: A History

3.77  ·  Rating Details  ·  209 Ratings  ·  32 Reviews
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. Throughout history, happiness has been equated regularly with the highest human calling, the most perfect human st ...more
Paperback, 560 pages
Published December 18th 2006 by Grove Press (first published 2005)
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(showing 1-30 of 835)
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Roslyn Ross
Sep 03, 2014 Roslyn Ross rated it liked it
To be clear, I loved this book. Couldn’t put it down. I give it 3-stars because the author:
1. has obviously not read Joseph Campbell or Ayn Rand and any book analyizing happiness from Every Different Perspective Ever that hasn’t read those authors is just sloppy.
2. tried way too hard to see something that wasn’t really there. It is clear to me by reading the exerpts that most of the thinkers thought very clearly and thoroughly about happiness—there was much less development over time than he cla
Melanie Goetz
McMahon investigates how the concept of "happiness" came to mean what it means today. Starting out in Ancient Greece, where only a few godlike men were believed to be chosen to achieve happiness in this world and a happy life could only be judged in hindsight after a person's death, up until today, where science promises to discover the genetic secret to a happy life. The idea of happiness shifted throughout history, along with its perceived relevance and McMahon shows the different philosophica ...more
Jul 14, 2011 Gloria rated it it was ok
We from our selves alone, and not from Fate,
Derive our happy, or unhappy State....
If Fates Inconstancy we wou'd prevent,
We, in all States of Life, shou'd seek Content...
~William Wycherley

I've found one thing that doesn't make me particularly happy--
reading about happiness.
Or at least what those from all walks of life, all branches of history, and all realms of faith define as "happiness."

While some of the history in this book was interesting (especially the ancient Greeks' and Romans' take on th
Feb 14, 2012 James rated it liked it
Shelves: history-of-ideas
If you are looking for answers to the questions of how or where to find happiness this is not the book for you. However, if you want an expansive discussion and history of the idea of happiness in many, if not all, of its forms then this is the book for you. The author catalogues many of the most interesting interpretations of this elusive subject, while he avoids concluding precisely what it should be. This is a good place to look for beginnings to the search for answers rather than the answers ...more
Sep 12, 2008 Heidi rated it liked it
I came across this when i was working on my thesis. The author really has a wonderful idea with this book--investigating what has defined happiness throughout history across cultures.
Dan Rivas
What I learned:

People have never been happy, that's why there's a God.
Aug 30, 2013 Chris rated it liked it
For the philosophically inclined, I'd recommend this book. It goes through the Western history of the concept of happiness, focusing mostly between the medieval and renaissance time-frames giving a more limited focus on 18th century and classical Greek lines of thought. It doesn't, however, cover any thinking from other traditions, which is a slight weakness of the book.

The book does a good job of going through the ages. Classical Age being about virtue, Medieval being about Christian piety, Ren
Apr 15, 2008 Tami rated it it was amazing
The pursuit of happiness. If you browse the shelves of your local bookstore or library, you are sure to find a couple dozen titles that claim to have the secret to happiness. Surprisingly though, when you look past the cover these books don't seem to agree on THE way to gain happiness. After reading a few of these titles it becomes very apparent that no one seems to even agree on what constitutes happiness. Some believe that material possessions are proof of happiness while others think that hap ...more
Jan 03, 2013 Will rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
"To maximize pleasure and to minimize pain - in that order - were characteristic Enlightenment concerns. This generally more receptive attitude toward good feeling and pleasure would have significant long-term consequences. It is a critical difference separating Enlightenment views on happiness from those of the ancients. There is another, however, of equal importance: that of ambition and scale. Although the philosophers of the principal classical schools sought valiantly to minimize the role o ...more
Michael Fong
Sep 19, 2012 Michael Fong rated it it was ok
There are those who say "You can never be sure" and "There's so much to know before you can be sure". Such folk, when scaffolded by education, become Darrin McMahon. I've for long thought of most historians as the librarians of the intellectual world, sweeping together the dusts of knowledge into nice big mounts, while physicists and philosophers chuck spears of thoughts at the ideas that stand tallest, clearing way for a rising humanity. McMahon has put together a book with such sweeping scope ...more
Annie Primera
Apr 03, 2015 Annie Primera rated it really liked it
Really interesting and thorough work. The concepts are presented clearly but not too simply. There is enough food for thought in this book to keep the mind busy for a good, long, while, but in the end the same conclusion can be drawn from this book as from most other history books: we spin around in spirals, coming again and again to the same things but giving them different names and slightly different hues.
Bookmarks Magazine

Today bookstore shelves are stocked with encyclopedia titles like Salt, Zero, The Pencil, Cod, Chocolate, and One Good Turn (A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw). Happiness follows in suit but delivers a surprisingly rounded view of its subject. True to his subtitle, McMahon is more interested in cataloging the manifold interpretations of his slippery subject than in delivering a decisive conclusion of what it should be. A few critics wanted some answers; instead, McMahon raises m

Nov 02, 2014 Kay rated it liked it
It's extremely challenging to undertake a topic as broad as happiness and what human thought has been from Socrates up to the present time. For the various schools of thought in this area from philosophers to religious leaders to scientists, this book covers all of this ground although I found it both too long and not enough of a deep dive. I think this is simply because it's such a challenging topic to tackle. As always, happiness proves elusive. I have to admire an author even willing to tackl ...more
Mar 18, 2012 Bumbierītis rated it really liked it
A wonderful book, it takes you on a journey from the start of humanity to today, always searching for happiness. Happiness that is never to be found. Approached, yes, seized, never. A very thorough research of the Western ideas of happiness. The one star I took off from the rating was for how difficult it was to read. I bought the book in 2008 and been reading it on and off since then. But I guess in a way it makes sense. It is so full of ideas and information, that reading it all at once might ...more
Feb 24, 2010 Jenette rated it really liked it
This book gave a good explanation of ideas from Aristotle to Lock to Darwin to Marx to Nietzsche to Freud, etc and is well written. I would really recommend this to someone who is interested in a more history oriented look at the philosophy of happiness. It is an entertaining journey through the cultural, moral, and intellectual history of the West.
I have learned a lot about the people discussed and about my own conceptions and misconceptions of what constitutes happiness. I loved the ending li
Feb 06, 2010 Tim rated it it was amazing
McMahon's big book made me far more happy than I expected it would. It is an intellectual history of the idea of happiness in the West that ranges from the Greeks, through Christian thought, to the Enlightenment and 19th century philosophy and science, to modern psychology and pharmacology. I had expected more on the latter, but it mainly came in an epilogue to an engaging, well-written dive into what the ages have thought about happiness.

More later . . .
Paul Patterson
Dec 18, 2009 Paul Patterson rated it it was amazing
This book is from my retreat talk and I am reworking the ideas I had there. It is an intellectual history of happiness. The first chapter deals with the Ancient views of happiness in Greek Tragedy, Platonic, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno traditions. The shift if from happiness as a product of fate and gods, to happiness for the elite, and finally a democratized from of happiness in Stoic thought. The various conditioning of happiness is well discussed.
Jun 06, 2010 Ruth rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
544 pages.

A look at the bright side - the process is as important as the result.

In the tradition of books by Peter Gay and Simon Schama, Happiness is a major work that 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.
Penny Dreadful
Mar 12, 2008 Penny Dreadful rated it really liked it
A really freaking interesting reminder that just about everything is contextual... What I learned from this book is that the time that we live is unique in thinking that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable human right when most of history considered the happy few those who were blessed by the gods. As Tom Waits once said, with a wink & a nod "Call no man happy til he's dead."
A very detailed look at the history of the concept of "happiness" (mostly focused on the West). The early chapters dealing with Greco-Roman conceptions of happiness were the most interesting to me; my interest rapidly waned after that point, sadly. Still, worth reading for those first few chapters alone, in my estimation. Borrowed from Central Library in Phoenix.
Jul 24, 2013 Renate rated it it was amazing
Not a how-to or self help book, but a thorough historical overview of the theme happiness. In the style of Huizinga and Schama, the author goes from the Greeks to modern societ, using most philosophical sources, but also referring to literature and art. Very worthwile.
Aug 06, 2011 Julia added it
For anyone who has ever pondered whether the current focus on happiness might be causing more problems than it's solving, this history of the idea of happiness in Western thought makes fascinating reading.
I'm giving up on this one. It's been a few weeks since I picked it up, and I don't see myself returning to it. The subject is interesting, but the way it's written isn't. It sounds like a textbook.
Sep 29, 2008 Liz rated it really liked it
I liked it..was worried that McMahon was going to get weird as it went deeper into recent philosophical stuff. Very researched, interestingly presented and nuanced. Some beautiful ideas.
Jul 07, 2011 Wenjtu rated it it was amazing
Gives societal beliefs and philosophies on how to obtain happiness. Really gives good insight on why we, and past cultures lived the way they did. Highly recommended!
Ak Hauck
Very enjoyable. Traces the many different meanings true happiness has taken on as world views have changed throughout time.
Aug 06, 2008 Kang rated it it was ok
A very breezy intellectual history--I would call it "journalistic." Good for factoids, but not for philosophizing.
Jude Brigley
very scholarly. reminded me of lots I had studied in the past.
Carolyn Fitzpatrick
Jan 15, 2008 Carolyn Fitzpatrick rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
Way too dry for me. Too much philosophy, not enough history.
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This book is identical in contents to "HAPPINESS: A HISTORY" 1 2 Nov 01, 2012 05:21AM  
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Darrin M. McMahon is a historian, author, and public speaker, who lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and the Ben Weider Professor of History at Florida State University.
More about Darrin M. McMahon...

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“Like Rousseau, Hegel appreciated quite early on that in modern commercial societies, individuals' desires and needs were generated by the desires and needs of others. Implanted by advertising, dictated by fashion, and determined by style, individual desire was always socially determined, shaped by the particular contexts in which we live. [..] Hence the need for greater comfort does not exactly arise within you directly; it is suggested to you by those who hope to make a profit from its creation.” 6 likes
“No one could work harder to be happy," Tocqueville observes of Americans, marveling at the ceaseless, restless energy they expand in search of a better life. Rushing from one thing tho the next, an American will travel hundreds of miles in a day. He will build a house in which to pass his old age and then sell it before the roof is on. He will continually change paths "for fear of missing the shortest cut leading to happiness.” 1 likes
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