Happiness Book Summary By Darrin M. McMahon

*This post contains affiliate links, and we may earn an affiliate commission without it ever affecting the price you pay.

Happiness: A History is a captivating journey through the history of human happiness.

The book traces the story from Ancient Greece, through the Dark Ages and up to the modern era, and delves into how our perceptions and ideas about happiness have changed and evolved.

This is an essential read for anyone who wants to gain a deeper understanding of this complex topic.

With vivid descriptions and insightful analysis, Happiness: A History will leave readers feeling enriched - both in mind and spirit.

It’s an enlightening exploration that offers us new perspectives on something we think we all understand but rarely take the time to truly contemplate.

Happiness Book

Book Name: Happiness (A History)

Author(s): Darrin M. McMahon

Rating: 4/5

Reading Time: 13 Minutes

Categories: Mindfulness & Happiness

Author Bio

Darrin M.

McMahon is a renowned American history professor whose research has been featured in some of the most prestigious publications in the world such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

He also wrote two acclaimed books: Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Makingof Modernity and Divine Fury: A History of Genius.

His work reflects his deep understanding of history, which can be seen in his latest book Happiness: A History.

Why The Dark Ages Were Really That Dark: How Our View Of Happiness Changed Throughout History


When it comes to emotion, we often take our current understanding of happiness for granted.

But did you know that long ago, the concept of happiness was seen as something from the gods and it was better to leave it untouched? It was only due to the efforts of great minds in history that our current conceptions of happiness have been transformed into something we can strive for with our free time!

Never take your ability to experience joy and happiness for granted; some people throughout history didn’t even have that luxury.

We should be thankful for those who contributed to this amazing transformation and remember that even in our darkest times, hope always remains available if we really seek it out.

So don’t forget to take a few moments each day to be grateful and never take your freedom (and right) to pursue happiness lightly!

It Took The Democratization Of Athens For People To Believe They Could Influence Their Own Happiness

The great thinkers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all had unique perspectives on what it meant to be happy.

Socrates and Plato believed that by using one’s own reason, they could have some influence over their own life and thus, their happiness.

Socrates and Plato argued that happiness was not out of the individual’s hands; it wasn’t just up to fate or luck left up to the gods.

Aristotle had a slightly different view of human happiness.

He still believed that humans were part of a higher order but argued that we must look to the world for true happiness rather than solely relying on an intangible transcendent form of joy as Socrates and Plato proposed.

He thought we must “unearth our role” as humans to achieve real and lasting satisfaction in life.

From The Dark Ages To The Renaissance: How Life And Happiness Became Attainable For All

As Europe moved into the European Renaissance in the 14th and 15th centuries, people started to view happiness as something attainable for individuals.

Throughout the Middle Ages, many Europeans had a bleak outlook on life and joy, often feeling weighed down with pain.

But as the Renaissance gathered momentum, there began to be a shift toward optimism; with religion becoming a key driver of this transition toward a more positive outlook.

Italian philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s work On the Dignity of Man, which was written in 1486 and is seen by some as setting the foundations for much of Renaissance philosophy, highlighted man’s right to determine their own level of greatness or depravity and argued that we could ascend toward God and become happier through growth and improvement.

This new-found appreciation for self-improvement acted as an incentive for individuals to strive for greater happiness both for themselves, and for those around them.

With this new way of thinking came a whole host of possibilities – leading ultimately to the belief that true happiness could exist beyond Earth itself.

The Enlightenment Era’s Shifting Perspective On Happiness From Sin And Innocence To Natural Rights And Earthly Pleasure

Natural Rights

Throughout the Enlightenment, people were determined to understand what happiness meant and how it could be achieved.

At first, this goal began with a focus on innocence and sin: since eternal damnation was the consequence of sin, it was thought that innocent living was the key to attaining a happy life.

This understanding encouraged people to search for the Garden of Eden in Babylonia (modern-day Iraq).

However, as time went on, this notion of innocence and sin evolved into a new way of looking at Earth.

Voltaire and Claude-Adrien Helvétius proposed that Earth itself is Heaven incarnate – an idea that was quickly embraced by many who began creating pleasure gardens as places for joy and fun.

Consequently, with proposals such as these, citizens started to see happiness as an attainable right rather than something they must chase after or strive for; it became a natural part of being human.

By the mid 1700s, most people viewed happiness as an inherent human right – granting everyone freedom to experience joy in their lives.

Although “melancholy” emerged later in literature by the end of the eighteenth century, many kept true to this newfound belief in happiness as a fundamental human right.

The Rise Of Sadness Led To A New Appreciation Of Joy

Sadness was once viewed as anathema to the idea of being happy, but over time, it has come to be seen as a necessary part of our journey towards personal joy and happiness.

Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) saw Werther undergoing melancholy experiences that were empathized by certain youths.

This in turn gave rise to Jean Paul’s Weltschmerz, or “world suffering,” which reflected on the inexplicable sadness and pain felt by many people.

These notions gave way to new thoughts about happiness; sadness and suffering could have a purpose as well – they were seen as opportunities.

It’s what drove Christians to accept the trajectory of life and keep striving for an eventual reward in Heaven.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poems further explore this concept: Joy exists when we are able to merge with something bigger than ourselves; when it happens, it is delightful and resplendent.

It shows us that sadness is okay – after all, it’s also a means to happiness.

The Meaning Of The American Dream: From Collective Rights To Personal Responsibility

In the early days of the United States of America, people were expected to take full responsibility for their own happiness.

This was in part due to the language of the Declaration of Independence which stated that citizens had an “right to the pursuit of happiness”, not just a right to it.

As a result, people began filing lawsuits against the government when they felt that their “right” wasn’t being honored.

Benjamin Franklin argued against this however, calling on people to be proactive in their journey toward a happy life by “catching it themselves.” He encouraged them to pursue wealth or family ties in order to find what made them truly contented.

To illustrate his point, he used wine as an example – that God had given us the opportunity to cultivate our own individual versions of ‘happiness’ through activities like growing grapes and making wine from them.

Other notable figures agreed with this sentiment – that we are responsible for creating our own happiness, rather than relying on some sort of guarantee from government or society.

A prominent group disagreed, however – just wait until later in our summary!

How We Have Interpreted The Pursuit Of Happiness Through The Centuries


Communists believed happiness could be achieved by reigniting a sense of community.

Unlike the capitalist perspective that the pursuit of individual interests is what matters most, communists argued that humans would not be able to reclaim their lost consciousness and spirit if they focus only on their own affairs.

Instead, turning to the past and recognizing our shared humanity was key for finding true contentment.

By restoring classless societies, we could regain our innate human rights and come together in an environment without oppression or submission.

Friedrich Engels suggested that rediscovering our collective soul is essential to restore our spiritual wellbeing as a species.

Similarly, The Great Soviet Encyclopedia saw it as a fundamental right for every person.

However, in societies where class played a defining role, it was much more problematical to achieve general well-being than in those were people were considered equal.

No matter which viewpoint you embrace, happiness has been widely studied from different angles with stimulating recounts throughout history – an area worth exploring whatever the case may be.

Wrap Up

The Happiness book is a comprehensive look at our conceptions and pursuit of happiness throughout history.

The authors explore how our understanding of this concept has changed over time, starting with Ancient Greek philosophers and tracing its evolution through Benjamin Franklin, Communism, and beyond.

In the end, this book ultimately concludes that real happiness still requires living life with personal values and fulfilling those values in meaningful ways.

This involves making investments into relationships, work, recreation or whatever else brings you joy.

Most importantly though, it necessitates self-reflection to challenge the assumptions we bring to defining our own happiness.

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.