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A Happiness Historian Explains Why Even Happy Lives Involve Pain

Darrin McMahon says 'smiley-faced happiness' isn't the whole picture.

Finding Happiness is an editorial package that explores what it means to be happy in today’s world. As part of it, we’re asking people known for their work on well-being and happiness to answer 7 questions about what happiness means to them. Here’s Darrin McMahon, historian, public speaker, and author of Happiness: A History. 

Thrive Global: What does happiness mean to you? 
Darrin McMahon: I understand happiness in the eudaimonic sense as a measure of a full, flourishing life.

TG: Are you living life according to the way you’ve defined happiness? 
DM: I’m certainly trying.

TG: If you had to pick one thing to tell the world about happiness, what would it be?
DM: A life of happiness will necessarily involve considerable pain. Too often, we think of happiness as a total absence of adversity or negative emotion, but that is just not possible. Flourishing involves knowing how to deal with and respond to setbacks. If you think about it, happiness would lose its meaning without its opposite.

TG: How does our culture’s definition of happiness play a role in our ability/inability to be happy? What cultures set a better/worse example?
DM: I think that Americans are often too quick to associate smiley-faced happiness with genuine flourishing. We think of happiness as pleasure alone and pursue it by pursuing pleasure. That is always, to a certain degree, self-defeating.

TG: Do you view happiness as the ultimate human pursuit? Why or why not?
DM: Yes, insofar as happiness is thought of as a full, flourishing life—a “good life”—and not merely a succession of pleasant sensations. In this respect, happiness is, as Aristotle said, the “highest good,” a human end that incorporates most other human goals.

TG: What’s your favorite happiness quote?
DM: It is a four-line poem by William Blake, “Eternity.”
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise

Darrin M. McMahon is a historian, author, and public speaker, who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts and is the Mary Brinsmead Wheelock Professor of History at Dartmouth College. Formerly McMahon was the Ben Weider Professor of History and Distinguished Research Professor at Florida State University.

Born in Carmel, California, and educated at the University of California, Berkeley and Yale, where he received his PhD in 1998, McMahon is the author of Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford University Press, 2001) and Happiness: A History (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006), which has been translated into twelve languages and was awarded Best Books of the Year honors for 2006 by the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Library Journal, and Slate Magazine.

McMahon has just completed a history of the idea of genius and the genius figure, Divine Fury: A History of Genius, published in October of 2013 with Basic Books. He is also the editor, with Ryan Hanley, of The Enlightenment: Critical Concepts in Historical Studies, 5 vols. (Routledge, 2009), and, with Samuel Moyn, of Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History (Oxford University Press, 2014).

McMahon has taught as a visiting scholar at Columbia University, New York University, Yale University, the University of Rouen, the École Normale Supérieur, and the University of Potsdam. His writings have appeared in such publications as the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.

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