Happiness: A History

Speaking of Darrin McMahon, here’s a review of his Happiness: A History by philosopher Gordon Marino. I’m really looking forward to picking this up. I think historical works like this should help would-be social scientists to see that happiness is a cultural conception that has evolved a great deal over time, and continues to evolve. The cultural boundedness of happiness implies that it is not particularly scientific to pluck our current conception of happiness out of history, pickle it in a jar of formaldehyde, and pretend that happiness studies are plumbing the timeless essence of a universal natural psychological kind, which, it just happens, uniquely exemplifies moral value.

But let me gripe some about the review. About halfway through, Marino mentions “our own age of near-pandemic depression,” and then, later writes:

. . . McMahon seems convinced by recent studies indicating that we are each endowed with a kind of emotional set point. According to this view, most humans are existentially unflappable. Whether it be winning the lottery or losing our jobs, after an initial reaction we settle back down into the same old repertoire of moods. As the scientists of happiness have it, we are both amazingly resilient against tragedy and remarkably resistant to radically positive change. In a footnote, McMahon concedes that depression stands as an exception to this rule — and quite an exception it is, because, according to an article cited in “Happiness,” millions of people are on antidepressants. I have had my boat rocked a few times in life and I have watched a few others go over the falls, and my experience roils against the view that, emotionally speaking, nothing ever really changes, or at least not for long.

And millions of people take Vitamin C supplements indicating . . . what? A near-pandemic of scurvy? Again, I’ll point to my depression posts here, and here, my depression op-ed, and the Horwitz and Wakefield essay that got me on this kick.

[Cross-posted from Happiness and Public Policy.]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center