FSU history professor’s ‘Happiness’ makes New York 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 named it to the newspaper’s annual "100 Notable Books of the Year" list. (The complete list, published on Monday, Dec. 4, 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’t feel 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.