Happiness: A History — Book Review

happiness a history book cover

Reading notes on Happiness a History by Darrin M. McMahon.


Happiness: What are the most basic human emotions?

We can be relatively certain that basic human emotions will include fear, love, hate, and happiness. And our emotions, coupled with intellect, is what it means to be human.

We didn’t always regard happiness as something natural or deserved. Historically, there is some part of the world where happiness was seen as something from the gods, and it was something definitely not to be meddled with.

Nonetheless, we owe it to the great minds of history who enabled our modern conception of happiness. They managed to transform it from something mysterious and arbitrary into something pursue-able.

The pursuit of Happiness

Maybe we can be happy without being stupid

We all have a say in our happiness. If you’re not feeling happy, we can go out and change that. I remembered feeling joyous and happy walking in the rain. Yeah, we do have a say in our happiness. I’ve even heard someone say, eat see chocolate when we were having a bad day.

But, curiously, people didn’t always think like this.


Happiness and the Athens & The Persian Empire

A quick look at Athens.

It wasn’t until after the city was democratized in the 5th 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 which includes poverty, inferior medical technology, political suppression and so on. Hence, they thought “happiness seemed better left to the gods.”

After the Empire’s defeat, Athens began to blossom. As democracy progressed, people began experiencing new freedom, and this, in turn, inspired some to believe that they may have some influence over their happiness.

And this was when things might seem to be brighter.

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. But rather, it was up to people themselves.

To them, happiness was the ultimate goal, something far better than mere earthly satisfaction. Longing for such transcendent happiness is one of our natural tendencies.

However, Aristotle, on the other hand, saw things slightly different. Like Socrates and Plato, he believed that humans were part of a higher order. But here’s the difference, unlike Socrates and Plato, 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.

Fun fact, this was beautifully illustrated 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.

the shcool of athens
The school of Athens

The Dark Ages

The European Middle Ages 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, most people had a very negative outlook on life, much so on happiness. It’s hard to be happy in the Dark Ages. Full of despair, they felt trapped in their own bodies, which frequently caused them pain. To make matters worse, it was also during this time that Black Death obliterated almost a third of the European population.

The gloomy outlook on life during this period of history can be read in a thirteenth-century manuscript by an 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.

Now, the writer later became the Pope.

Later in the 14th and 15th centuries, as the Renaissance gathered momentum, people seem to lighten up it, and happiness now seemed to be attainable. The transition in a hindsight seems slow, but maybe it was as fast as it could have been. Then in the 15th century, people began philosophizing about life and happiness.


Philosophy, literature, religion and happiness

Italian philosopher Giocanni Pico Della Mirandola’s 1486 work On the Dignity of Man is regarded by some as the 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 moved toward God, we’ll be 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.

As people continued to embrace happiness throughout the Enlightenment at one point, people were sure that the only way to conceive of happiness was to understand innocence and sin. Since 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 answer – The Garden of Eden or heavens.

The quest for Eden

The quest for Eden resulted in a work by biblical scholar Bishop Pierre Daniel Huet, in 1691, who 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).

But, as the Renaissance prevailed, the notion of innocence and sin no longer defined the happiness debate.


The Age of Enlightenment

At the beginning of the 18th century, the time of Enlightenment, people’s orientation shifted and Eden became less interesting than Earth.

In 1795, Claude-Adrien Helvetius, Voltaire and philosopher wrote a poem called Happiness, suggested that Earth was paradise or heaven incarnate. I would strongly disagree with his opinion, but then again, everybody is entitled to their own.

Eventually, by the middle of the 18th 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. Happiness evolved into a human right. Now, we regard it as not only attainable but as natural. That is, happy life was seen as part of our purpose (a goal nature intended us to reach).


Despite the age of happiness, sombre terms such as ‘melancholy’ also appeared in literature and became popular by the end of the 18th century. Despite the belief that happiness was natural, notions of sadness and melancholy began cropping up the end of the 18th century. People born during the Enlightenment were taught that they were supposed to be happy, but as the 18th century came to a close, people were talking about a new strange sadness.

In the 19th century, 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.

Interesting enough, despite all the gloom and doom genre, it actually ushered in new conceptions of happiness. Sadness now became a starting point, as an emotion that gave new impetus to the search for happiness.

By later half of the 19th century, people started regarding pain and suffering as serving a purpose, which both could lead to joy. Take Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

Around this time, English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge addressed joy in his poetry, describing it as something that we merge with which were both delightful and resplendent, a means of experiencing something greater than ourselves.


The American Dream

The freedom to work hard and create a wonderful life for yourself has driven the people to set out in search of the bounty America had in store. But, the truth is, the American Dream does not guarantee happiness for everyone.

American Declaration of Independence in 1776 which states that everyone has certain inalienable rights, including the right to the pursuit of happiness. However, hundreds of disgruntled Americans filed lawsuits either against the American government or other people.

In addition to spawning different interpretations of what the pursuit of happiness meant, it also led them to attempt to legally claim what they thought was theirs, the happy life. This resulted in hundreds of discontented people suing their own government – because they thought their happiness was protected by law.

In response to the lawsuits, Benjamin Franklin argues that happiness was a right – but it wasn’t simply handed to everyone. He instead instructed them to catch it yourself. He believed that everyone was responsible for their own happiness – whatever happiness means to them – which could either be wealth, happy family or even fame. Unfortunately, not everyone believed that happiness ought to be a personal pursuit.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia suggests that happiness was seen as an innate human right throughout history. However, whereby in societies based on class, the ruling class’s desire for happiness always overpowering the oppressed classes struggle for happiness.

The communist held that the predominant approach to happiness – the egoistic pursuit of individual interests has 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.



Throughout history, mankind has held different views on the concept and what it meant to be in pursuit of happiness. Countless fascinating perspective to be found in the long and thought-provoking history of happiness.

However, I think we could fairly agree, even though there are external factors which can affect our happiness, the pursuit of happiness is a personal one, and we are in the driver seat.

Further Reading Suggestion

Read Happiness: A History



Author: Muhamad Aarif

A notorious book addict by night and an oil and gas executive by day. As Mark Twain said, "The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." So, read, read, and read some more.

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