Monday, February 2, 2009

HAPPINESS: A HISTORY by Darrin M. McMahon

In my small collection of happiness books, two have long been personal favorites: The Pursuit of Happiness by David G. Myers (1993) for its lucid explanations, and Adventures in Contentment by David Grayson (1916) for its soothing evocations.

Now I am adding a third title to my pantheon: Happiness: A History by Darrin M. McMahon, "a professor of history at Florida State University and a frequent contributor to publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Daedalus."

Selected by the New York Times as one of the 100 notable books of 2006, Happiness is an engaging survey of Western philosophy from Herodotus to today's bioethicists. To learn more about the book, you can't do better than Jim Holt's excellent review. Sample its opening lines:

The history of the idea of happiness can be neatly summarized in a series of bumper sticker equations: Happiness= Luck (Homeric), Happiness=Virtue (classical), Happiness=Heaven (medieval), Happiness=Pleasure (Enlightenment) and Happiness=A Warm Puppy (contemporary). Does that look like progress? Darrin McMahon doesn't think so.
A better woman than I might sit down and read Happiness straight through. Instead, I'm enjoying it in small bites each morning, reading 10 pages or so from one subhead to the next, gathering little gems as I go.

A couple of days ago, for instance, I learned that the word fun is "a relative novelty, introduced in English only in the late seventeeth century as a variation of the Middle English fon, meaning jester or fool" (199).

In the eighteenth century a truly radical philosophy developed:
To dance, to sing, to enjoy our food, to revel in our bodies and the company of others--in short, to delight in a world of our own making--was not to defy God's will but to live as nature had intended. This was our earthly purpose. (200)
I like that philosophy (providing that warm puppies are part of the delight). It's a far cry from the ancient Greeks' concept of virtue, to be sure. But even Aristotle enjoyed a good cup of wine.

4 comments:

  1. Lavonne, I have a happiness book for your collection. Liturgical happiness, even. See http://www.litpress.org/Detail.aspx?ISBN=9780814618783 You can have it for the price of a cup of coffee -- which I'm going to need to get the work of three people done.

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  2. I'd love to trade a cuppa joe for that book. And for you, I suggest Josef Pieper's "Leisure: The Basis of Culture"!

    http://www.amazon.com/Leisure-Basis-Culture-Josef-Pieper/dp/1890318353/ref=ed_oe_p

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  3. Hi Lavonne - just discovered your blog through your review of two novels on Books and Culture. Have you come across Prayer and the Pursuit of happiness by Richard Harries. No - it isn't one of those creamola foam devotionals but a defence of both prayer and happiness, and the fact that our desires have legitimacy in a life fully human and fully Christian.

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  4. Jim, I haven't yet seen Bp. Harries's book, but thanks for the recommendation - I'll look for it. The book Marcia gave me is Abbot Christopher Jamison's Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life. It's excellent so far (I'm reading it a few pages at a time). When I've finished, I'll probably post a review.

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