CinemaDave (cinemadave) wrote,

FSU professor DARRIN McMAHON studies 'happiness'

FSU history professor's 'happiness' makes N.Y. Times '100 Notable Books'


Happiness: It's what's hot. At least, that's what Florida State University historian Darrin M. McMahon is finding to be the case.

McMahon, an associate professor of history at FSU, released his book "Happiness: A History" to stellar reviews and media fanfare earlier this year. Now, "Happiness" has earned its author even more attention as The New York Times has named it to the newspaper's annual "100 Notable Books of the Year" list. (The complete list, which was published on Sunday, Dec. 3, can be viewed here

Everywhere we look, happiness - or at least the promise of it - is a highly sought commodity, McMahon noted. From advertising to contemporary economic theory, psychology and psychopharmacology and, of course, religion, the search for happiness is the great motivating force of our time. Why, then, aren't we any happier?

That all-out pursuit of happiness is precisely the reason it's so difficult to attain, he said.

"It is only relatively recently that human beings have begun to think of happiness as not just an earthly possibility, but also in some ways as an obligation or entitlement, a natural human right," McMahon said. "As I try to show in the book, this has had an unintended effect. When we think of happiness as our natural condition - the way we ought to be - then it becomes natural to blame ourselves or others when we are not happy, as if somehow we've been done an injustice or done something wrong ourselves. I think this has created a new and very modern pressure, even a new type of unhappiness: I call it the unhappiness of not being happy.

"All you have to do is open a magazine or turn on the television and you are bombarded with pictures of apparently happy people smiling away," he said. "If you don'tfeel the same way - and most people don't most of the time - this can be kind of a downer."

"Happiness: A History," which quickly made its way onto bestseller lists in early 2006, looks back through some 2,000 years of Western politics, culture and thought, searching for evidence of how our contemporary obsession with being happy came about.

In his book, McMahon shows that our modern concept of happiness is a relatively recent development, the product of a dramatic revolution in human expectations over the past 300 years.

"Dating back to the ancient Greeks, the concept of happiness was linked to luck or good fortune - a gift from the gods, as it were," he said. "Slowly from this notion of happiness as something we chance upon, or that is granted to the fortunate, human beings developed an understanding of happiness as being within their own power to achieve. That idea really took off during the Enlightenment in the 18th century."

When Thomas Jefferson wrote of "the pursuit of happiness" as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence, he charted new territory - and helped shape the world view of all who would follow, particularly in the United States.

"Our expectations of happiness have been raised enormously - perhaps too high," McMahon said. "In modern society, we demand not only the right to pursue happiness but expect its attainment as well. In the process, we have largely forgotten what the Founding Fathers originally intended, although we go on chasing this elusive thing all the same."

So, after studying 2,000 years of happiness, did he find the true secret to happiness?

"Unfortunately, no," McMahon said. "As a matter of fact, I would be suspicious of any author who claims to have discovered a formula for happiness. We all want so desperately to be happy that it makes us susceptible to false promises."
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