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Happiness: A History Paperback – December 18, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Before the contemporary onslaught of therapeutic treatments and self-help guidance, the very idea of happiness in this life was virtually unknown. In this eminently readable work, McMahon (Enemies of Enlightenment) looks back through 2,000 years of thought, searching for evidence of how our contemporary obsession 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. In one particularly rousing section, he highlights the breakthrough thinking of German theologian and religious revolutionary Martin Luther. Locked in self-imposed exile in the Augustine Black Monastery in Wittenberg, Luther struggled with a God who punished sinners, then realized that man is "justified—made just, not punished with justice..." and that this life was one to be lived, that man must "drink more, engage in sports and recreation, aye, even sin a little" in order to be happy. Throughout McMahon leads the reader with strong, clear thinking, laying out his ideas with grace, both challenging and entertaining us in equal measure.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From 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 many questions. Certainly, this professor of history at Florida State University presents some thinly veiled opinions, but the success of the book is founded on its encyclopedic and accessible presentation of this most evasive idea.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; First Trade Paper Edition edition (December 18, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802142893
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802142894
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 5.9 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #288,796 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

147 of 150 people found the following review helpful By sb-lynn TOP 500 REVIEWER on January 6, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I just finished reading Happiness: A History. This was a very interesting read, and a very informative one.

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, 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.
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56 of 58 people found the following review helpful By Bob Fancher on July 22, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Everyone wants to be happy, right? Of course. But what, exactly, does it mean to say that?

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.
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50 of 57 people found the following review helpful By Shalom Freedman HALL OF FAME on February 23, 2006
Format: Hardcover
One basic reason for reading a book about 'The History of Happiness' is to understand what exactly it is that will make us happy. In other words we might read the book as a kind of how- to- do-it book but one in which we have to figure out the 'principles ' of how to do it by ourselves.

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.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A.Bidou on June 2, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Happiness: A History is a beautiful book for people who enjoy reading. It is not a self-help manual, so if you are looking for one simple message or point, then this is not your book. Instead, McMahon offers a great many insights, showing how and why earthly happiness began to replace otherwordly salvation in the eighteenth century, and why happiness has since become our modern God. McMahon tells this story by beginning with the ancient Greeks and then moving forward to the present. Along the way he gives the reader a short course in the history of Western Civilization by looking at what great writers and artists and philosophers had to say on the subject of happiness, and pointing out things like the relationship between happiness and luck and why the pursuit of happiness can often be counter-productive. The writing is clear, and the book as a whole is insightful, often poignant and funny. It can be challenging in places, but it repays the effort, and then some. I loved it.
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