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A look at the bright side

Gordon Marino is a professor of philosophy and the director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College and editor of "Basic Writings of Existentialism."

“HERE’S wishing you much happiness in 2006,” a kind friend recently wrote me in a holiday greeting card. Not to be a grouch, but what does that mean? As Americans, we have a religious devotion to the idea of our own happiness. We believe that we have a sacred right to pursue that strange bird into the forest of our lives and are even prepared to medicate any condition that gets in the way of the hunt.

Even my philosophy students lecture me that life is all about the pursuit of happiness. In return, I badger them with: “Aristotle insisted that in order to hit a target, you have to be able to find it. So how would you define happiness?” Usually, they shrug and use catchphrases about feeling good and doing what you want. Some even meekly suggest that the good life has something to do with being a good person. Truth be told, I am a bit of a depressive who, even at the best and most joyous of times, thinks “this too shall pass.” Really, I am in no position to pronounce on happiness, but then there is Darrin M. McMahon’s masterful meditation “Happiness: A History.”

McMahon’s book is a genealogy of the idea of happiness. Book-length studies like this are much in vogue today. Indeed, during the last decade, ancestries of abstractions such as boredom, anxiety and melancholy have been published and have sold exceptionally well -- for example, Jennifer Hecht’s “Doubt: A History” and Patricia Spacks’ “Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind.” The reasonable presumption behind such books is that ideas, no less than frogs, evolve and are subject to the thunderclaps of contingency. Meanings are displaced and abraded in the mill of time. Books like McMahon’s are aimed at restoring the sense of a term that may have been muted by seismic cultural shifts.

Deep in antiquity, McMahon argues, happiness was inextricably bound up with notions of luck and good fortune. Although the Greeks understood that virtue was a part of happiness, they also grasped that moral paragons often led miserable lives and, as McMahon puts it, “there is plenty of hap in happiness.”

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Equally important, in “the understanding of Herodotus and his contemporaries ... happiness is not a feeling, nor any subjective state.... Happiness, rather, is a characterization of an entire life.” A popular adage among the Greeks was: “Call no man happy until he is dead.” At the time, it was commonly understood that fortune was a carnival wheel and that even the mighty could be brought down as suddenly as a horse slipping on a stone. The ancients also believed that a good life could not end on the rack but must involve a good death.

McMahon explains that with the advent of Christianity, less weight was put on fortune -- happiness, however, was still largely regarded as a state lying beyond the borders of this vale of tears. During the Enlightenment, however, people came to believe that well-being could be achieved on Earth, and in our present age happiness is regarded by many as something between an entitlement and emolument for a job well done. Elsewhere, McMahon notes how the Buddha is often shown smiling even though one of his teachings is that all life is suffering -- not something to smile about!

This is a deeply philosophical book that quietly raises fundamental questions on the scale of: Is life worth living? At the same time, “Happiness: A History” is a scintillating course in the history of ideas that invites us to consider paintings, poetry, even the plaster mask of Beethoven. As he contemplates the changing representations of happiness from the halos of 14th century painter Giotto Biandolini to the smiley faces of the 1970s, McMahon charts perturbations in the concept as it relates to pleasure, pain and melancholy. Apropos of our own age of near-pandemic depression, it was, McMahon maintains, only when happiness began to emerge as a possibility in this life that the medical elite began to think of melancholy as a disease.

McMahon takes many side jaunts on his intellectual safari, but his text is grounded in a series of gracefully written commentaries on a cast of immortal excogitators including Aristotle, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Mill, Marx, Darwin and Freud. Of noteworthy percipience are McMahon’s readings of Rousseau, whom the author credits with establishing some of the self-defeating snares of the happiness quest. In the commercial and industrial world of the West, our attempts to satisfy desires inevitably lead us to new forms of desire and, as a result, to fresh frustrations. In the end, McMahon captures Rousseau sighing in his “Reveries of a Solitary Walker”:

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“Happiness is a lasting state which does not seem to be made for man in this world. Everything here on earth is in continual flux which allows nothing to assume any constant form. All things change round about us, we ourselves change, and no one can be sure of loving tomorrow what he loves today. All our plans of happiness in this life are therefore empty dreams.”

McMahon’s book also contains illuminating pages on the history of happiness in Revolutionary-era America. In a gloss on the Declaration of Independence, McMahon unravels the tensions between the private and publicly oriented threads of the American vision of the good life. On the one hand, our forefathers closely associated happiness with property rights and the individual pursuit of pleasure. On the other, Jefferson insisted, “Happiness is the aim of life but virtue is the foundation of happiness,” which McMahon maintains echoes “Franklin’s observation that virtue and happiness were mother and daughter.”

There is a pacific tone to this work, sometimes tinged with irony. In his encounters with the likes of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, McMahon seems to wince at operatic acts of theory. As a historian, he delves into issues that are at the heart of the matter of life with an almost remote air.

And yet McMahon’s personal convictions ring through in the coda. There he intimates that Americans have been bamboozled, perhaps by the Aristotles of the advertising world, into thinking of happiness as an elusive kind of emotional state that can be secured by getting and following the right set of directions. If I just had this house, or that job, or a pile of money, or peace in my family, I would be happy -- thus turn the minds of people who haunt themselves with fantasies of the perfect life. McMahon even worries that we might become so frustrated in our search for this grail that we will meddle with genes and turn human nature upside down.

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In the end, however, although he feigns raising an eyebrow, McMahon seems convinced by recent studies indicating that we are each endowed with a kind of emotional set point. According to this view, most humans are existentially unflappable. Whether it be winning the lottery or losing our jobs, after an initial reaction we settle back down into the same old repertoire of moods. As the scientists of happiness have it, we are both amazingly resilient against tragedy and remarkably resistant to radically positive change. In a footnote, McMahon concedes that depression stands as an exception to this rule -- and quite an exception it is, because, according to an article cited in “Happiness,” millions of people are on antidepressants. I have had my boat rocked a few times in life and I have watched a few others go over the falls, and my experience roils against the view that, emotionally speaking, nothing ever really changes, or at least not for long.

After 500-plus pages, McMahon concludes that there is something to be said for and against almost every one of the umpteen theories he has rehearsed. Ultimately, he writes, we are not any closer to solving the puzzle of happiness than we were at the beginning. But then, with a wink and a nod, he assures us that the results of his research reveal that the important thing in life is the process as well as the result -- the same could be said of this superb book. *

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From Happiness: A History

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THE smiley face captured perfectly the will to good feeling that has continued to propel us forward to the present day. That this symbol was created by an advertising agent -- offered, almost, as a gift -- is all the more fitting. For few figures in contemporary Western society play as central a role in perpetuating the prospect of perpetual pleasure. If advertising can be said to be the business of selling dreams, the dream now is often a variation on the theme of happiness -- at all times, in all places, in all things. Have a Coke and a smile. Indulge in “happy hour,” savor “genuine satisfaction.” Or spend a weekend, as the national branding campaign of Aruba tempts, on “happiness island,” the island “where happiness lives.”


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