Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press


A History

by Darrin M. McMahon

“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

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 560
  • Publication Date January 23, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4289-4
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $20.00

About The Book

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 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 could–in fact should–be 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 happiness–its promise, its possibility, its allure–seemed 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.


“McMahon’s book is a genealogy of the idea of happiness. . . . A deeply philosophical book that quietly raises fundamental questions on the scale of: Is life worth living? At the same time, ‘Happiness: A History’ is a scintillating course in the history of ideas that invites us to consider paintings, poetry, even the plaster mask of Beethoven. As he contemplates the changing representations of happiness from the halos of 14th century painter Giotto Biandolini to the smiley faces of the 1970s, McMahon charts perturbations in the concept as it relates to pleasure, pain and melancholy. . . . His text is grounded in a series of gracefully written commentaries on a cast of immortal excogitators including Aristotle, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Locke, Rosseau, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Mill, Marx, Darwin and Freud. . . . Superb.” –Gordon Marion, Los Angeles Times

“A history of happiness in the Western tradition, Mr. McMahon’s impressively researched, beautifully written book offers a treasure trove of ideas on the topic, all accompanied by the author’s insightful commentary and arranged so as to establish an overriding story line.” –Andrew Stark, The Wall Street Journal

“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

“Erudite and detailed without being pedantic, Happiness is lively, lucid and enjoyable. . . . Abounds with intriguing material . . . Bring[s] readers the satisfaction of intellectual adventure.” –Felicia Nimue Ackerman, Washington Post

“Excellent.” –The Economist

“And finally, there may be a book on the subject of happiness–its history, its pathology, its Sisyphean quest–that speaks to my own heart. . . . This is not a happy book but a rich and intelligent one. . . . McMahon won me over slowly, then utterly.” –Gail Caldwell, The Boston Globe

“A remkarble achievement for a young scholar. Rarely have I encountered such an ambitious work of historical writing that is at once so instructive and 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.” –Prof. Wildred M. McClay, Commentary

“A debonair account of Western philosophical speculation through the prism of its classical starting point: What constitutes the well-lived life and how are we to find it? Happiness is a thoughtful work on a subject of enduring significance, which modern philosophers have imprudently abandoned to the scribblings of charlatans and mountebanks. Darrin McMahon is a talented young historian who wears his learning lightly; he writes with grace, wit, and just the right blend of intellectual sympathy and moral skepticism. His book deserves a wide audience.” –Tony Judt, author of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945; director of the Remarque Institute, New York University; and Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies, NYU

“Darrin McMahon’s history of happiness is the first work I know of to chart the development of the idea from its ancient to its current forms ” masterful and engaging ” His excellent work may stimulate us to take stock of ourselves and the paths we have trod in pursuit of happiness.” –Ellen Charry, Christian Century

“A bright, authoritative and, for a work as rigorously academic as this, quite accessible history . . . If you want your happiness to be virtuous and utilitarian, pick up McMahon’s Happiness.” –Bill Duryea, St. Petersburg Times

“In this eminently readable work, McMahon looks back through two thousand years of thought, searching for evidence of how our contemporary obsession [with happiness] came to be. From the tragic plays of ancient Greece to the inflammatory rhetoric of Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, McMahon delves deeply into the rich trove of texts that elucidate and confirm the development of Western notions of this elusive ideal. Throughout McMahon leads the reader with strong, clear thinking, laying out his ideas with grace, both challenging and entertaining us in equal measure.” –Publishers Weekly

“Engaging stroll through the ages . . . McMahon elegantly expedites the discussion of happiness. . . .” –Abby West, Entertainment Weekly

“From the famous encounter between Solon and Croesus to Freud’s dark reflections on the fate of those whose lives are driven from the deeper reaches, Darrin McMahon takes his readers on a journey of intellectual, cultural and philosophical delights. Hegel instructed us to find happiness only on the blank pages of history. Would that he had access to this truly estimable work.” –Daniel N. Robinson, Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University & member of Philosophy Faculty, Oxford

“Richly researched and splendidly readable book . . . The narrative steers a deft course between the writings and lives of great men . . . the social contexts and improvements in human living conditions. . . . [McMahon] maintains impressive control over the forward sweep of his narrative but also allows readers the opportunity to recognize the complexity of his subject and form their own judgement.” –Anthony Lond, Times Literary Supplement (London)


Selected as one of The New York Times Book Review 100 Notable Books of the Year
Selected as a 2006 Washington Post Book World Most Favorable Reviews title



As places where fun could be had, the pleasure gardens were forbearers of our modern amusement parks, offering games and recreation, spectacles and refreshments, music and sanctuaries, in which lovers could stroll. They put flesh on the new endorsement of pleasure expressed in theory by the likes of Locke, symbolizing perfectly a wider eighteenth-century aspiration to create space for happiness on earth. To dance, to sing, to enjoy our food, to revel in our bodies and the company of others–in short, to delight in a world of our own making–was not to defy God’s will but to live as nature had intended. This was our earthly purpose. As the poet Alexander Pope declared in his celebrated lines:

Oh, happiness, our being’s end and aim!

Good, pleasure, ease, content! Whate”er thy name:

That something still which prompts the eternal sigh,

For which we bear to live, or dare to die . . .

“Does not everyone have a right to happiness?” asked the abb” Pestr”, the author of the entry on that subject in the French encyclopedia edited by Denis Diderot. Judged by the standards of the preceding millennium and a half, the question was extraordinary: a right to happiness? And yet it was posed rhetorically, in full confidence of the nodding assent of enlightened minds.

©2005 by Marrin M. McMahon. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.