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Darrin McMahon

Professor Of History Darrin Mcmahon

About happiness, novelist Edith Wharton may have said it best: "If only we'd stop trying to be happy, we'd have a pretty good time."

Humans have been clawing their way to varying states of happiness for eons, and it's downright intriguing how they've gone about it. In a book published last year, historian Darrin McMahon shed remarkable light on how the concept of happiness has changed—sometimes dramatically—over the past 2,000 years.

An intellectual historian who specializes in 18th-century Europe and the French Revolution, McMahon found the Enlightenment period a crucial landmark in happiness's evolution. Before that time, religious mores historically had mandated that people, as sinners in a sinful world, weren't intended to be happy, he says.

“In the 18th century, that notion is challenged,” McMahon reports. “That was really the first time in human history when large numbers of people are presented with the notion that they ought to be happy—they have a right to be happy.”

The Enlightenment's revised idea of happiness then inspired a flood of reversals, McMahon says. “Who says we shouldn't enjoy our bodies? Who says we shouldn't take pleasure in sex, in food, in the fruits of our labor, and the things of this earth?” he says were among the questions and personal convictions of the day.

To this day, happiness remains a much-coveted commodity, and McMahon's book Happiness: A History (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006) touched a nerve. Translated into nine languages, the book won Best Books of the Year honors for 2006 by the New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate Magazine, and the Library Journal, and was prominently reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker and many other publications.

Does McMahon's work project a happy ending for happiness? Not quite.

“There's a paradox,” he admits. “The more you tell people you've got to be happy, (the more) it creates a moral imperative.”

And so it turns out, he says, that the pursuit of happiness ends up having an unhappy byproduct: guilt or angst associated with not being consistently happy.

In short, “By dwelling too much on happiness, we make ourselves unhappy,” he says.

On that happy note, perhaps there's no small comfort in coming to grips with that. —M.M.W.

Darrin McMahon joined the FSU faculty in 2004 after teaching at Columbia University, New York University and the University of Rouen, France. His first book, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity, was released in 2001 by Oxford University Press. He's currently working on his next book, a history of the Western concept of genius.


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