Is everybody happy? FSU professor writes the book on a most elusive emotion

Happiness: It’s what’s hot.

Everywhere we look, happiness—or at least the promise of it—is a highly sought commodity. 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?

The all-out pursuit of happiness is precisely the reason it’s so difficult to attain, says Darrin M. McMahon. An associate professor of history at Florida State University, McMahon knows of what he speaks. His new book, "Happiness: A History," 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.

"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 on 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."

In his book, McMahon shows that our modern concept of happiness is a relatively recent development, the product of a dramatic revolution in human expectations over the past 300 years.

"Dating back to the ancient Greeks, the concept of happiness was linked to luck or good fortune—a gift from the gods, as it were," he said. "Slowly from this notion of happiness as something we chance upon, or that is granted to the fortunate, human beings developed an understanding of happiness as being within their own power to achieve. That idea really took off during the Enlightenment in the 18th century."

When Thomas Jefferson wrote of "the pursuit of happiness" as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence, he charted new territory—and helped shape the world view of all who would follow, particularly in the United States.

"Our expectations of happiness have been raised enormously—perhaps too high," McMahon said.

"In modern society, we demand not only the right to pursue happiness but expect its attainment as well. In the process, we have largely forgotten what the Founding Fathers originally intended, although we go on chasing this elusive thing all the same."

So, after studying 2,000 years of happiness, did he find the true secret to happiness?

"Unfortunately, no," McMahon said. "As a matter of fact, I would be suspicious of any author who claims to have discovered a formula for happiness. We all want so desperately to be happy that it makes us susceptible to false promises. History is full of such tragic swindles. Think of the Soviet Union; Stalin called himself the ‘constructor of happiness,’ yet millions of people died during the construction.

"I’m not sure that reading my book will make a person happier, but I do think that by comparing one’s own striving with that of some of the most interesting and insightful pursuers in Western history, readers will gain perspective on what it is they’re really after," McMahon said. "That may help to at least clarify the search, which is a good place to start."

Professor Neil Jumonville, the chairman of FSU’s department of history, praised McMahon for his ability to make history accessible to all types of audiences.

"Darrin McMahon is one of the most talented and exciting historians working at the moment," he said. "The secret to his success is that, as in his new book on happiness, he is able to appeal to both professional scholars and the normal reader on the street. He does this not only in the choice of his topics but in the accessible and interesting way that he writes. This is the mark of a historian who will have great recognition and impact, and not only for the moment."

In addition to "Happiness: A History," McMahon has written more than 20 articles on European history, culture and politics for publications including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Boston Globe. He also has been featured on National Public Radio.