Happiness: A History

Happiness: A History, Atlantic Monthly Books, 2006
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Selected as one of The New York Times Book Review 100 Notable Books of the Year for 2006.

Selected as a 2006 Washington Post Book World Most Favorable Reviews title.

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Selected Comments and Reviews

“Excellent history” —The Economist

“From Herodotus and Aristotle through Locke and Rousseau down to Darwin, Marx and Freud. The musings on happiness of these and dozens and lesser thinkers are lucidly presented in fine, sturdy prose that is ? a delight to read.” —The New York Times

“Erudite and detailed without being pedantic, Happiness: A History is lively, lucid, and enjoyable. Although McMahon neither promises nor delivers the secret of happiness, his book can bring readers the satisfaction of intellectual adventure.” —The Washington Post

“Richly researched and splendidly readable.” —The Times Literary Supplement

“[A] masterful meditation…. This is a deeply philosophical book that quietly raises fundamental questions on the scale of: Is life worth living? At the same time, Happiness: A History is a scintillating course in the history of ideas that invites us to consider paintings, poetry, even the plaster mask of Beethoven. His text is grounded in a series of gracefully written commentaries on a cast of immortal excogitators including Aristotle, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Mill, Marx, Darwin and Freud. . . . Superb.” —The Los Angeles Times

“A heavyweight study” —The New Yorker

“McMahon’s impressively researched, beautifully written book offers a treasure trove of ideas on the topic, all accomplished by the author’s insightful commentary, and arranged so as to establish an overall storyline.”. —The Wall Street Journal

“A rich and intelligent book” —The Boston Globe

“A gracefully written narrative of the evolution of thinking on happiness.” —Financial Times

“An engaging stroll through the ages . . . McMahon elegantly expedites the discussion of happiness. . . .” —Entertainment Weekly

“Beautifully written” —The Scotsmen

“[An] Exhilarating book” —The Guardian

“A masterly trawl through Western philosophy” —The Sunday Herald (Glasgow)

“An unprecedented history of the philosophy of happiness, the energy and verve with which [McMahon] runs through this important subject is admirable.” —The Independent

“Fascinating and Inventive.” —Scotland on Sunday Review

“A stimulating read, the kind that sets your mind hopping.” —Houston Chronicle

“A bright, authoritative and, for a work as rigorously academic as this, quite accessible history . . . If you want your happiness to be virtuous and utilitarian, pick up McMahon’s Happiness.” —Saint Petersburg Times

“Darrin McMahon’s history of happiness is the first work I know of to chart the development of the idea from its ancient to its current forms; masterful and engaging. His excellent work may stimulate us to take stock of ourselves and the paths we have trod in pursuit of happiness.” —The Christian Century

“A remarkable achievement for a young scholar. Rarely have I encountered such an ambitious work of historical writing that is at once so instructive and entertaining. Throughout, McMahon strikes just the right balance of seriousness and irony, of sympathy and detachment, capturing that elusive combination of nobility, cupidity, and futility that has always attended the human quest for earthly contentment.” —Commentary

“In this eminently readable work, McMahon looks back through two thousand years of thought, searching for evidence of how our contemporary obsession [with happiness] came to be. From the tragic plays of ancient Greece to the inflammatory rhetoric of Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, McMahon delves deeply into the rich trove of texts that elucidate and confirm the development of Western notions of this elusive ideal. Throughout McMahon leads the reader with strong, clear thinking, laying out his ideas with grace, both challenging and entertaining us in equal measure.” —Publishers Weekly

“A thoughtful book on a subject of enduring significance, which modern philosophers have imprudently abandoned to the scribblings of charlatans and mountebanks [McMahon] writes with grace, wit, and just the right blend of intellectual sympathy and moral skepticism.” —Tony Judt, author of Postwar

Book Reviews


Happiness: A History, in English (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006). Paperback, 2007


  • in Holland in Dutch translation as Geluk: Een Geschiedenis (Amsterdam: Bezige Bij, 2006)
  • in Spain, in Spanish translation as Una Historia de la Felicidad (Madrid: Taurus, 2006)
  • in the UK as The Pursuit of Happiness: A History from the Greeks to the Present (London: Allen Lane, 2006) and paperback 2007
  • in Brazi, in Portuguese, translation as Felicidade: Uma Historia (Sao Paulo: Editoro Globo, 2007)
  • in Italy in Italian, translation as Storia della felicità d’all’antichità a oggi (Milan: Garzonti, 2007)
  • in Serbia in Serbian, translation as Istorija srece (Belgrade: Geopoetika, 2007)
  • in Korea in Korean, translation with Sallim Publishing House (Seoul, 2008)
  • in Taiwan in Chinese, translation with Athena (2007), and on mainland China with Shanghai Joint Publishing Company (2009)
  • in Greece in Greek, translation with Enalios (Athens, 2009)
  • in Portugal in Portuguese translation as Uma Historia da felicidade (Lisbon, 2009)
  • in Turkey in Turkish translation with E. Yayinlari