Has Happiness by Darrin M. McMahon been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.
What are the most basic human emotions? Certainly, they include fear, love, hate and, of course, happiness. Such emotions are doubtless central to what it means to be human.
Well, not so fast. In fact, we didn’t always regard happiness as something natural or deserved – or even particularly human! Long ago, happiness was seen as something from the gods, and something it was definitely better not to mess around with.
We owe a debt to the great minds of history. They enabled our modern conception of happiness, transforming it from something mysterious and arbitrary into something to be pursued in our free time!
In this summary of Happiness by Darrin M. McMahon, you’ll learn
- why the Dark Ages really were that dark;
- what Marx’s followers had to say about happiness; and
- why droves of Americans sued the government after 1776.
Happiness Key Idea #1: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle didn’t fully agree on a definition of happiness.
We all have a say in our happiness, right? If you’re not feeling happy, go out and change that. Having a bad day? Eat some chocolate!
But people didn’t always think like this.
Let’s take a quick look at Athens. It wasn’t until after the city was democratized in the fifth century BCE that people began dreaming of a happy life that they could influence.
Prior to the downfall of the Persian Empire, people thought happiness was simply out of their power. Due to all the variables that brought utter misery at the time – poverty, inferior medical technology, political suppression and so on – happiness seemed better left to the gods.
After the Empire’s defeat, though, Athens began to blossom. As democracy progressed, people began experiencing a new freedom, and this inspired some to believe that they may have some influence over their happiness.
This is what Socrates and his student Plato believed – that, by using their ability to reason, people could have more control over their own lives, and thus their happiness. Socrates and Plato argued that it wasn’t just up to fate, luck or the gods. It was up to people themselves. To them, happiness was the ultimate goal, something far greater than mere earthly satisfaction. Longing for such transcendent happiness was a natural human tendency.
Aristotle, on the other hand, saw things a little differently. Like Socrates and Plato, he believed that humans were part of a higher order. But, unlike them, Aristotle held that we must look to the world; only there could we unearth our role as humans and the true role of human happiness.
This is represented beautifully in the famous fresco The School of Athens, by Raphael. Here we see Plato pointing toward the skies while Aristotle holds out his right hand, palm facing toward the earth.
Happiness Key Idea #2: As Europe entered the Renaissance, happiness became attainable for individuals.
The European Middle Ages are sometimes referred to as the Dark Ages because they sit between the “light” of the Roman Empire and the European Renaissance. But it was also dark because everyone was grumpy and miserable.
During the European Middle Ages, many people had a very negative outlook both on life and on the idea of happiness. Full of despair, they felt trapped in their own bodies, which frequently caused them pain.
In short, it was a dark time. Also during this time, the Black Death obliterated almost a third of Europe’s population.
A thirteenth-century manuscript by Italian cardinal and deacon Lotario dei Segni, who later became Pope Innocent III, nicely sums up the atmosphere of the time: “Happy are those who die before they are born, experiencing death before knowing life.”
Later, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as the European Renaissance gathered momentum, people lightened up somewhat, and happiness became something attainable. The transition was slow, but in the fifteenth century, people began philosophizing about life and happiness.
For example, Italian philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s 1486 work On the Dignity of Man is regarded by some as a cornerstone of the Renaissance. He writes that man’s dignity is within God – that man can position himself in the universe wherever he wants and determine his own level of greatness or depravity. He argued that, as we ascend toward God, we’ll get happier. Indeed, religion is what leads to perfect happiness. Although this perfect happiness can’t be found on Earth, we can obtain natural happiness through philosophy and being the best we can be.
Check it out here!
Happiness Key Idea #3: By the end of the eighteenth century, happiness was commonly regarded as a human right.
People continued to embrace happiness throughout the Enlightenment. And at one point people were sure that the only way to conceive of happiness was to understand innocence and sin. Since it was believed that sinners would spend eternity burning in hell, people figured that innocence was the answer to a happy life. So what did they turn to in order to achieve happiness? The Garden of Eden.
The quest for Eden resulted in a work by biblical scholar Bishop Pierre Daniel Huet. In 1691, he wrote A Treatise on the Position of the Earthly Paradise, which claimed that the remains of Eden were to be found in Babylonia (modern day Iraq).
However, as the Dark Ages receded further into the past, the notion of innocence and sin no longer defined the happiness debate.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century – the time of the Enlightenment – people’s orientation shifted and Eden became less interesting than Earth. This is what Voltaire and the philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius – who, in 1795, composed a poem called Happiness – proposed. To them, Earth was paradise – Heaven incarnate.
Soon, many jumped on the bandwagon and started regarding Earth as a place for paradisiacal delights. This was manifested through, for example, the creation of pleasure gardens. These could be compared to modern amusement parks, and they boasted music, games and refreshments – places for fun and joy on Earth.
And so, eventually, happiness evolved into a human right. It was now not only attainable; it was a natural condition. That is, a happy life was seen as part of our purpose – a goal nature intended us to reach. By the middle of the eighteenth century, most people viewed happiness as a natural right, and this is where our modern notion that everyone has a right to happiness stems from.
Despite the age of happiness, though, sombre terms such as “melancholy” also appeared in literature and became popular by the end of the eighteenth century, as we’ll see next.
Happiness Key Idea #4: Sadness is okay – after all, it’s also a means to happiness.
Despite the belief that happiness was natural, notions of sadness and melancholy began cropping up by the end of the eighteenth century. People born during the Enlightenment were taught that they were supposed to be happy, but as the eighteenth century came to a close, people were also talking about a new, strange sadness.
This can be seen, for example, in Goethe’s 1774 publication The Sorrows of Young Werther. The book became popular among young people who were discontented with their lot in life, and Goethe’s work gained a following. People even dressed like Werther, sporting blue frock coats and vests.
Later, in the nineteenth century, the poet Jean Paul introduced the notion of Weltschmerz, or “world suffering,” to express the inexplicable sadness and pain felt by people at the time. This term was later popularized by another Romantic poet, Heinrich Heine.
But all this doom and gloom – and the new terms for it – actually ushered in new conceptions of happiness. Sadness became a starting point, an emotion that gave new impetus to the search for happiness.
By the latter half of the nineteenth century, people had started regarding pain and suffering as serving a purpose: both could lead to joy. This also dovetailed nicely with the Christian tradition of struggling through a life of sin and suffering in the hope of ascending to heaven and a reward of eternal joy and happiness.
Around this time, English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge addressed joy in his poetry, describing it as something that we merge with. This merging is both delightful and resplendent, a means of experiencing something greater than ourselves.
Happiness Key Idea #5: In the young United States of America, people were responsible for their own happiness.
The American Dream – the freedom to work hard and create a wonderful life for yourself – drove countless people to set out in search of whatever bounty the land of opportunity had in store for them. But really, the American Dream does not guarantee happiness for everyone.
In fact, after the Declaration of Independence in 1776, hundreds of disgruntled people filed lawsuits against the American government or against other citizens.
Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the American Declaration of Independence states that it’s a self-evident truth that everyone has certain inalienable rights, including the right to the pursuit of happiness.
In addition to spawning different interpretations of what exactly “the pursuit of happiness” meant, it also led people to attempt to legally claim what they thought was theirs: the happy life. This resulted in hundreds of discontented people suing the government, because they thought their happiness was protected by law.
Later, however, the prevailing belief was that everyone was on their own in the journey toward happiness. In response to the lawsuits, Benjamin Franklin argued that happiness was a right, but that it wasn’t simply handed to everyone. He instead instructed people to “catch it yourself.”
Franklin believed everyone was responsible for realizing their own happiness, whatever that meant for them – be it wealth, tight family bonds or anything else that they might pursue. Franklin used wine to illustrate his point, saying that God had given us the opportunity to grow happiness all by ourselves, for example, by cultivating wine.
Franklin wasn’t the only one to adopt such a notion. In the final book summary, we’ll see who else shared his opinion, as well as learn about a prominent faction that didn’t.
Happiness Key Idea #6: Communists believed happiness would come from reigniting a sense of community.
Unfortunately for Benjamin Franklin, not everyone believed that the pursuit of happiness ought to be an individual endeavor.
Although Franklin’s liberal sentiment was famously shared by, among others, economist Adam Smith, people began to question the dominant concept of individuality, a cornerstone of capitalist societies.
For instance, Friedrich Engels, an admirer of Karl Marx, reasoned that humans had lost their soul and spirit – their human consciousness – due to “brute individuality.” He argued that happiness would come to those who could help humanity regain this lost consciousness.
For communists, happiness came from looking to the past, the only place where we could return to our roots and reclaim our human consciousness. According to The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, throughout history, happiness was seen as an innate human right. However, in societies based on class, the ruling class’s desire for happiness always mercilessly overpowers the oppressed classes’ struggle for happiness.
The communists held that the predominant approach to happiness – the egoistic pursuit of individual interests – incapacitated human consciousness. It made humans indifferent to others and uninterested in morality. Therefore, if humans were to regain their lost happiness, society had to return to a community, preferably a classless one.
No matter which viewpoint you subscribe to, there are countless fascinating perspectives to be found in the long and thought-provoking history of happiness.
The key message in this book:
Throughout history, we have held vastly different views on the concept and pursuit of happiness. From Ancient Greek philosophers, to Benjamin Franklin, to communism, our idea of happiness has evolved in unexpected and fascinating ways.