Is happiness a modern invention?

Prof. Darrin McMahon

Today, we tend to think about happiness as a right: a natural goal all humans strive towards. How could it be possible that this idea came into being just two hundred years ago?

Watch preview

Learn about this Garden Talk

Has happiness as we think of it today only been around since the eighteenth century?

In classical times, a happy life was a virtuous and honourable one. Later, happiness became a transcendent state, attainable by only a few during their lifetimes (and a few more as a reward in heaven). Today, happiness is seen as within the reach of anyone, and for most people, we spend our lives in pursuit of it. What caused this dramatic revolution in what humans expect from their lives?

Darrin McMahon is a professor and a historian of ideas at Dartmouth College, and he has looked back through over 2,000 years of thought to explore our changing beliefs around happiness. Darrin joins us in The Garden to investigate humankind's most elusive yet most sought-after goal.

Read this talk's transcript

Talk outline


50 minutes


The Theory of Happiness

About the Fellow

Prof. Darrin McMahon

Darrin McMahon is a special kind of historian: a historian of ideas. His work explores how concepts like happiness and genius have changed over time and why.

Thank you notes from Garden members

The Theory of Happiness Collection

Happiness: is it a science, or is it an art? To help us all get through the deepest and darkest part of January, we're exploring what researchers and deep thinkers have to say about what makes us happy.

Online live interactive talks with experts

Come learn from the best in their fields, and ask them your questions

Find an upcoming live talk

High-quality recorded talks on-demand

Watch recordings of 100+ past talks at your own pace

Browse on-demand talks

The Garden is a community for the curious, a place where inquisitive minds can come together to learn from world experts, and each other, and join in conversations about topics that spark their curiosity.

Find out more

With our monthly membership we aim to give anyone, anywhere, access to the knowledge, ideas and people who have shaped — and continue to shape — our understanding of the world.

Start free trial