Back to mobile

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit

by Published on

Happiness: A History

Happiness: A History seemed like a very happy book to me until page 15. Happiness, as people say, is short-lived. Page 15 is the last page of the introduction to this book, and in the last two sentences of his introduction, Darrin McMahon, a Florida State University history professor and the author of this comprehensive book, closes with a real downer: “Might not the search for happiness entail its own undoing?” he asks. “Does not our modern commandment to be happy produce its own forms of discontent?”

He titles the introduction “The Tragedy of Happiness,” so I should have seen it coming. But when you’re sitting on a beautiful, deserted beach in Mexico with good friends and your biggest concern is whether you should eat lunch closer to noon or one, the word “tragedy” seems like a bluff and the phrase “the tragedy of happiness” a failed attempt at satire.

That seemed like happiness, being on that beach after a cumbersome few weeks of searching on the Internet for the perfect isolated beach and determining how to get there. A lot of people don’t consider a trip to a deserted beach in Mexico real happiness—or any vacation, for that matter; it’s apparent when people on vacation say they have to go “back to the grindstone,” or when they tell people they’re going “back to the real world.” Still, I had fleeting thoughts about finding lasting happiness right there on that beach and began plotting how to return more often—like six months out of the year.

Back in Texas, reality set in. Abandoning the miasma of vague thought that a remote Mexican beach tends to induce, I turned to Happiness. After devoting the kind of attention to this book that it deserves, it is clearer to me than before that Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Herodotus, and other trusted thinkers also would not consider a trip to a deserted beach in Mexico to be any kind of true happiness.

But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try. It is one of the virtues of this book that McMahon approaches his overwhelmingly large topic like a particularly erudite journalist, hunting down the most relevant passages, examples and quotes. Despite the abundance of evidence he offers that happiness is unattainable, Happiness is actually a rather happy book. McMahon has a voice that is forthright, vibrant, absolutely clear-headed, and humorous; he is steadily confident that there are answers to be found in the epochs he explores, and cognizant that happiness is not purely a philosophical concern.

One of the passages McMahon highlights comes from Reveries of the Solitary Walker, a series of essays Rousseau wrote at the embittered end of his life apparently more for himself than for publication: “Of all the places where I have lived,” Rousseau writes, “…none has made me so truly happy or left me with such tender regrets as the Island of Saint-Pierre in the middle of the Lake of Bienne,” in Switzerland. “I was barely allowed to spend two months on this island, but I could have spent two years, two centuries and all eternity there without a moment’s boredom.”

On that island, Rousseau felt “self-sufficient like God,” with “no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear than simply the feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely.” That, Rousseau decided, is happiness, not “a poor, incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life,” but “a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul.”

Unlike, say, the nature of time or the cosmology of being, happiness is a philosophical subject—maybe the only one—that everyone feels a profound and innate need to master. It is also difficult for philosophers to treat happiness in a wholly academic way (as McMahon points out, even Aristotle began his own investigation of happiness by referring first to popular notions of what it is). We all have opinions about happiness, but it hasn’t always been that way. Rousseau’s elaboration of what it was like to be on the Island of Saint-Pierre was a relatively novel thing to do: The notion that everyone has a right to happiness may seem second nature to us, but Rousseau and other Enlightenment thinkers were the first to proclaim it, after having inherited centuries of mind-numbing documents asserting the whereabouts of the precise earthly coordinates of Eden (not to mention centuries of insistence that the only true path to happiness was a religious one). For example, in 1691, Bishop Pierre-Daniel Huet asserted in A Treatise on the Position of the Earthly Paradise that, as McMahon puts it, “the happy home of humanity … stood in the Tigris and Euphrates delta, in modern-day Iraq.” The bishop thought, like so many others of his time, that if he could find the home of Adam and Eve, humanity could finally fathom happiness. Just 45 years after Huet wrote his treatise, the Enlightenment had so dramatically elevated the secular nature of human concerns like happiness that Voltaire mordantly parodied Huet and his ilk; “earthly paradise is where I am,” he wrote.

Happiness - book cover

Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers had to topple more than just eons of stultifying religious doctrine, however. McMahon returns throughout the book to the story of Croesus, the wealthy king of Lydia (now part of Turkey) who ruled five centuries before Christ was born. As Herodotus tells it in The History, Croesus, given his unrivaled wealth and power, was rather confident that he was the happiest man around. To pump up his self-esteem, though, Croesus summons Solon, a wise old Athenian, who takes a tour of Croesus’ riches and announces that Croesus is not among the happiest three men, all of whom are dead. One of them was a young father who died in the glory of battle, perishing with all his precious manly honor intact.

The other two were young men, two brothers, who died peacefully in their sleep one night after hauling their mother in a cart to a remote village festival. The brothers were late leaving home that day, and the two ox were slow, so the brothers unharnessed them and pulled their mother themselves. Once at the fair, the other young men gathered around, marveling at the brothers’ strength; their proud mother, basking in their glow, prayed right then and there that “the goddess should give them whatsoever is best for a man to win,” as Herodotus writes. The goddess decided that the best thing would be for them to die with honor, and after dinner she put them to sleep, for good.

There are a lot of good jokes just waiting to be wrung from that one, but at the time, Croesus was so angry at Solon for refusing to see how happy he was that he had him expelled. Soon afterwards, Croesus’ son died in a bizarre accident and Croesus’ kingdom was destroyed by Persian armies. The moral? “Happiness at the dawn of Western history was largely a matter of chance,” McMahon writes. It was also, clearly, a matter of how well you died that determined for the ancients how happy you were in life.

So thank God for the Enlightenment. In a book that investigates the entirety of Western history, the Enlightenment emerges as the star because of the new thinking that emerged then—new thinking that remains with us still. The idea that it is our right to seek happiness obviously has its own complications, though. Rousseau knew that the happiness he felt on the Island of Saint-Pierre was temporary. “The happiness for which my soul longs is not made up of fleeting moments, but of a single and lasting state,” he wrote. In that way, he was similar to the ancients, but he also recognized that the drive for happiness is inherent and must be pursued—and that happiness was not, in fact, the tool of fate, the prevalent thought in antiquity. Rousseau saw that real happiness is unattainable but also knew how badly we all want it. “In wrestling with this contradiction,” McMahon writes, “[Rousseau] hit upon a vexing thought. What if the advance of modern civilization was the cause of this conflict, leading human beings not closer to their intended end but farther away, farther away from themselves?”

Happiness is now a consciously competitive sport, with all of life as its playing field. We may want other people to be happy, but it doesn’t seem cynical to say that we are all so busy trying to ensure our own happiness that there’s not a lot of time left over for extensive and devoted management of others people’s happiness. Making the trek to a deserted beach in Mexico is not everyone’s idea of happiness, but it is for me, even if it’s illusory. I may wish you all the luck in the world, but you’d have to induce the Chinese water torture for me to tell you how to get to that beach.

Clay Smith is the literary director of the Texas Book Festival.