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Happiness: A History Paperback – December 18, 2006
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Top Customer Reviews
In summary, McMahon takes us on a philosophical review of happiness, starting with Socrates, and taking us up to modern times. Along the way, we read the opinions of such notable figures as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Napolean, Locke, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, Adam Smith, Hume, Mill, Weber, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud...to name a few.
I particularly liked the last part of the book, with McMahon pointing out the relevance of Huxley's Brave New World in our own world today. We are a culture that feels happiness is our right, and the search for it extends to recent advances in pharmacology.
In reading this book you will learn about all the various theories and definitions of "happiness," and how each era dealt with it differently. This book is very well researched and presented.
I do have to tell you, Happiness: A History, can be pretty depressing, and there are many parts of the book that are downright bleak. (In an existential kind of way, at least for me.)
Still, highly recommended for those interested in the subject, and for anyone who wants to get a good overview of philosophy through the ages.
The concept, "happiness," means drastically different things to different people. McMahon takes us on a grand tour of how the concept has fluctuated and functioned in Western cultures. If you read this book thoughtfully, the notion that "Everyone wants to be happy" becomes less a platitude and more a conundrum.
If you're well educated in Western history, you won't find a lot of new ideas here--but you will find what you already know reorganized and, in the process, illuminated. The stuff you already know is supplemented by minor historical figures and movements you've probably not had occasion to encounter before. The result is thought-provoking.
My two complaints are about the last chapter.
First, McMahon takes a surprisingly uncritical view of contemporary psychiatric and psychological notions--and doesn't even understand them. In fact--as a substantial body of careful scholarship has shown--notions of mental health owe a great deal to the Enlightenment ideology that McMahon had already explained very nicely before getting to this chapter. But suddenly, he accepts mental health as more or less "sui generis," without historical or cultural influences.
And sadly, he often doesn't even understand the psychological literature he cites. For instance, he refers to studies which he interprets as showing that happiness "is [x]% genetic." But that's not what those studies say, or claim to say. They say, rather, that [x]% of the variance (which is a statistical construct, not a trait) among a population (not a characteristic of individuals) is accounted for by genetics--which is a drastically different notion.Read more ›
I think it is natural and obvious to most people in our world and time that this subject, our own personal happiness, is one of great importance and one we certainly should be most concerned with.
But one of the first findings of this study is that our attitude about happiness which comes so natural to us is not an 'eternal given' is not the way most people felt most of the time throughout history. They were worried more about other things, like surviving, like getting enough food to do it.
As McMahon sees it the modern conception of individual pursuit of happiness began with the Enlightentment in the 17th and 18th centuries. So the Declaration of Independence declares that it is our right to "pursue life, liberty and happiness." This contrasts sharply with the view of the ancient Greeks and Romans who said " that no man can be considered happy until after death'i.e. It is the whole story of a person's life which determines whether they are 'happy ' or 'not'.
In contrast I think of many expressions in the Jewish tradition beginning with Biblical ones in which 'happiness' is connected with 'sitting in the house of the Lord' or with 'trusting in God' and certainly with 'walking in the way of God." I think that is how in the Jewish religious conception the idea of happiness is bound up with doing our duty to others. And that the idea then of pursuing a private happiness apart from others would seem to make little sense.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Were I to read it again, I would read the last two chapters first, particularly pages 447-8 (paperback) to get an overview. Read morePublished 5 months ago by Eros Faust
Happiness A History is precisely that, a detailed history of the idea of happiness in Western civilization. Read morePublished 8 months ago by John Martin
Love this book, it's super insightful and packed thick with relevant and interesting information about the history of happiness. Read morePublished 12 months ago by Erik C Hauenstein
The book confirmed by belief that happiness is only temporary. It provides insights to some famous historical figures' happiness.Published 16 months ago by Henningan Hines
An excellent and comprehensive survey of how happiness has been viewed throughout the history of Western civilization. Read morePublished 19 months ago by bronx book nerd
3 stars because it's NOT in kindle yet. I keep waiting but it's NOT happening. WHY?? PUT THIS BOOK IN KINDLE PLEASE. As to the book, it's excellent. Read morePublished 22 months ago by SRE
As a writer/scholar, McMahon has carved out a niche somewhere between erudite academia and high-level journalism. He does write well and is clearly knowledgeable. Read morePublished on May 21, 2014 by W. J. Reedy
A brilliantly conceived book that covers a lot of ground and offers many tantalizing insights.Published on September 19, 2009 by David George Moore
This is truly a fantastic read. But you have to dig into it to get the most out of it. It brings together three fantastic topics: Happiness, History and Philosophy. Read morePublished on September 7, 2009 by Brad the Dad