Ode to Joy

Reviewed by Felicia Nimue Ackerman in The Washington Post: HAPPINESS, A History by Darrin M. McMahon.

Happy_1 Even when the subject is, alluringly, happiness, readers may fear that a 544-page, heavily annotated book will be a dry, abstruse tome. Be not afraid. Erudite and detailed without being pedantic, Happiness is lively, lucid and enjoyable. Darrin M. McMahon’s history of happiness concentrates on the great books of the Western world. From ancient Greek tragedies’ portrayal of happiness as a gift of the gods, through Roman celebrations of everyday comforts and pleasures, the medieval Christian focus on eternal bliss, and the modern conviction that earthly happiness is not just a right but practically a duty, McMahon traces the way conceptions of happiness have changed. The author, a professor of history at Florida State University, demonstrates “not only the centrality of the issue of happiness to the Western tradition, but the centrality of that same tradition and legacy to contemporary concerns.”

His book abounds with intriguing material. For example, it shows how G.K. Chesterton’s aphorism “The world is full of Christian ideas gone mad” applies to happiness. Also noteworthy is McMahon’s observation that traditionally, “a life of privilege was a life without labor . . . .That men and women should come to believe — even to expect — that work . . . should sustain their happiness, serving as a source of satisfaction in its own right, is therefore a recent and quite remarkable development.” McMahon displays his gift for nimble commentary by adding that it is “one of the delicious ironies of history” that “Marx’s contention that not only should we enjoy the fruits of our labor, but labor itself should be our fruit, is today a central tenet of the capitalist creed.”

More here.