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A History of Happiness


Happiness is Western cultures presumed point of life. There are thousands of books on subject. Yet there is little conclusion in society or the literature on the subject about what happiness actual is.

In fact the dedication to happiness in Western society is quite recent. Until the 18th century, Western ethics fostered, if anything, a slightly saddened approach to life, with facial expressions to match. 

The shift began with the intellectual movement toward a higher valuation of matters in this world and a reduced commitment to traditional Christian staples such as original sin. All part of the cultural environment created by the Enlightenment.

By the nineteenth century the trend towards happiness was powerful enough to propel it into politics. For example, the American revolution produced a commitment to the pursuit of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It wasn’t, however, until the twentieth century, particular from 1920s onwards, that happiness truly established its dominance of mainstream culture. 


A cult of happiness

Man stands between boulders on summit, arms out

Over several decades, titles such as 14,000 Things to Be Happy About, Happiness Is a Choice, and A Thousand Paths to Happiness began to emerge. They formed, a vast literature emphasising, simultaneously, the importance of being happy, the personal responsibility to gain happiness, and the methods available.

More recently targeted programs which included Happiness for Black Women Only, The Ladder Up: Secret Steps to Jewish Happiness, and Gay Happiness have appeared.  Such title’s cram full bookshelves. All telling you that this particular author has found the right ingredients to eternal happiness.

The escalation to today’s ‘cult of happiness’ built on the previous nineteenth century  trend. There were also other contributing factors. 

The development of the market economy, transition from a manufacturing to a white-collar economy and the development of consumerism were all key.

All sorts of advertisers (a newly distinct profession) discovered that associating merchandise with happiness encouraged sales. This is what most clearly explains why the intensified happiness culture of the mid-20th century has, in the main, persisted to the present day.


Cultural Wisdom

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Daniel Gilbert covers this theme is his book, Stumbling on Happiness.

Some of our cultural wisdom seems designed to promote the continuation of a consumer economy. Consider money. Economists and psychologist have spent decades studying the relations between wealth and happiness. They have generally concluded that wealth increases human happiness when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into the middle class. But that it does little to increase happiness thereafter.

So if all that additional wealth does not get you any more happiness, why do people crave so much more? Why do they continue to flog themselves silly to produce something that is not necessarily the source of happiness?

If no one wanted to be rich then we would have a significant economic problem. Flourishing economies require that people continually buy and consume one another’s good and services. Market economies require that we have an insatiable desire for stuff. If everyone was satisfied with the stuff they had then the economy would grind to a halt.




A consumer economy is premised on convincing people to buy things they do not need. 

You need to replace your old fridge or what will people think when they visit your home? Without the latest surround sound and ultra high definition technology your life will be incomparably poorer?

Economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will only strive for their own happiness, it is essential that they believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being.

stumbling on happiness

This Essay draws on work by the psychologist Daniel Gilbert, particularly his award wining book Stumbling on Happiness. If you’re interested in learning more click here.

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