Happiness: A History Darrin McMahon

Happiness: A History Darrin McMahon *** out of ****

What is happiness and how do we obtain it? The question sounds simple enough and yet, it is more difficult than we might think. In fact, a young scholar in Darin McMahon’s book Happiness: A History, says happiness is like an onion: “When you peel it, the center disappears, and when you slice it, you cry.” This is the feeling I got as I read through McMahon’s historical overview of happiness. McMahon follows a list of theologians, philosophers, and psychologists (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Locke, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Freud – just to name a few) who have written on the topic of happiness and describes the strengths and weaknesses of their ideas. It outlines the tug of war between Christian thought and non-Christian thought played out in history.
At its best moments, the book challenges us to consider what happiness is, if it is attainable, and if so, what is the best way to attain it. The book is sweeping in its overview and actually does a fairly good job summing up the major thinkers and their point of view on the topic.
I do wish he might have been slightly more critical concerning some of the thinking, but the book was already nearly 500 pages and too much commentary would have (at least) doubled the size of the material. Still, a little more dialogue with the different thinkers would have been interesting.
Overall, Happiness provides a great survey that asks more questions than it answers. But at least it moves us from thinking about happiness in a superficial way.


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