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Book Review: Happiness: A History by Darrin M. McMahon

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Happiness: a History, by Darrin M. McMahon, works beautifully. For readers who haven’t had an old-fashioned Western liberal education, it’s a 500-page tip sheet about the authors they might like reading best. For someone who has had such an education, it’s a trip down memory lane, bringing back some of those books that got waylaid by reefer and binge drinking.

McMahon discusses Western perceptions of happiness since classical Greece, using the same survey of "great white man" books that a liberal education degree would. Maybe he skews even farther towards "great white man" books than current liberal ed programmes do, which means neglecting some things.  His two-sentence dismissal of Hannah Arendt, for example, was a loss to the book, but who cares? 

He gets all sorts of points across, and does it with a lovely light touch. There are two great accomplishments in this book. First is the unforced manner in which McMahon shows a clear progression from one Western idea of happiness to another over 3,000 years. Dealing with the heaviest of sources — including Hegel, who was probably baffling to the point of jerkiness on purpose — he charts a map of the route the idea of happiness took up our asses. That is, from being the fruit of a virtuous or thoughtful life to becoming something we think we deserve.

Remember that Russian nurse Tony was banging on the Sopranos? She said something about Americans being the only people in the world who thought they deserved to be happy, or words to that effect. McMahon tells us how we got there.

The second great accomplishment of this book is dealing with this "great white man" canon and showing how its ideas of happiness reflected and illuminated their societies as a whole. The ivory tower, as it were, not being as towering as one would think. This reflection and illumination, he explains, extends to our society too — not just modern American or European society either, but every society into which some of our values have been imported, by hook or by crook.

The conclusion of Happiness, coming after McMahon has discussed aggressive antidepressant marketing and the possibility of genetic treatment for putative “victims” of grumpy-type DNA, is devastatingly sharp.  It’s full of run-on sentences and hyperbole after 500 pages without significant run-ons or hyperbole, so I think his heart was in these words — you know how academics are when they get earnest. I’d love to share it with you, but I won’t, for this is a book everybody should wade through by themselves. Enjoy.

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About Melita Teale

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!