Happier? The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America

by Daniel Horowitz, published by Oxford University Press (2018)

Happier book coverAlmost daily we learn of the impact of happiness studies and positive psychology, two fields that have fueled a cultural movement that has influenced the lives of millions of people around the world. Happier? provides the first history of the origins, development, and impact of this effort to shift the focus in the considerations of the human condition from mental illness to subjective well-being. The book explores the contribution of factors as diverse as Eastern spiritual traditions, behavioral economics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and cognitive psychology on public discussions. It highlights the transfer of specialized knowledge into popular arenas. Along the way it shows how marketing triumphed, transforming academic disciplines and spirituality into saleable products. Starting in 1945 and continuing through the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century, Happier? relies on a series of studies, both popular and scholarly, that offer windows into how ideas have developed.

This book links the development of happiness studies and positive psychology with a broad series of social changes, including the emergence of new media and technologies, TED talks, blogs, web sites, and neuroscience. Happier? examines the role of evangelical ministers, Oprah’s enterprises, and funding from government agencies and private foundations, especially the transformative contributions of the John Templeton Foundation. It explores the contribution of academic entrepreneurs in creating and sustaining what is among the most influential of academic fields of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It connects shifts in positive psychology to moments and movements, including the Holocaust, the rise of the counterculture, the crises of the 1970s, the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the prime ministerships of Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron, and the presidency of Donald Trump. It looks at the politics of positive psychology, including the impact of neoliberalism and the commitments among leading scholars to cultural conservatism.

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“Mr. Horowitz’s straightforward, comprehensive history of the positive-psychology movement follows the money wherever it leads–and it leads everywhere. He presents every controversy, representing defenders of positive psychology as fully as its critics . . . Daniel Horowitz’s history deftly reveals the eternal lessons that underlie all its incarnations: Money can’t buy happiness; human beings need social bonds, satisfying work and strong communities; a life based entirely on the pursuit of pleasure ultimately becomes pleasureless. “

CAROL TARVIS, Wall Street Journal

“Especially compelling is the discussion of the relationship between positive psychology and other contemporary developments.”

Library Journal

“Happier is thorough and even-handed . . . Apart from its use for scholars of recent intellectual history, curious lay readers will appreciate the way Horowitz deliberately explains complicated and disparate material. He helps readers understand the groundbreaking psychological studies that underlay the shift from a focus on mental illness to mental health. . . . Horowitz shows his readers how these discoveries assisted later work by major positive psychologists and their popularizers, and he is also a shrewd observer of the ways in which, beyond the confines of academia and the higher journalism, ‘the organized pursuit of happiness has swept into virtually every corner of American life.’”

V. JOSHUA ADAMS, popmatters

“In this comprehensive, well-researched, engaging book, Horowitz (emer., American studies, Smith College) traces the history and development of positive psychology and happiness studies in the US. . . . A highly readable historical meditation on happiness.”

J. R. MITRANO, Choice

An astonishing work of cultural analysis on changes in the field of psychology.

FREDRIC & MARY ANN BRUSSAT, Spiritually and Practice

“A thorough and thoughtful introduction to an influential discipline.”

review of Happier?

“Daniel Horowitz has done a Herculean job of compiling an exhaustive history of the conceptualization and study of happiness, from the early 1900’s through the present day. In the process, he brings order to a voluminous and varied literature. He takes care to clarify terms, a virtue not always pursued in the literature he reviews, and to detail both the apocryphal and the well-documented origins of popular movements and research trends, while flagging points of controversy and argument. As an historian, he is well-placed to identify both convergences and divergences, across disciplines (e.g., in sociology vs. psychology), and between cultural zeitgeist and scientific foci. His work will gently lead the casual reader interested in happiness into the issues raised by our assumptions about its role in a life well-lived, while experts are sure to discover new sources and ideas to enrich their own thinking.”

JULIE K. NOREM, Ph.D, Margaret Hamm Professor of Psychology, and author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking (Basic Books/Perseus, 2001)

“In an impressive work of historical synthesis, Daniel Horowitz shows how academic and commercial interests have shaped contemporary views of happiness and created a happiness industry. Horowitz’s reach is broad, his judgments are exact, and his material is entertaining. Hubris and foolishness are constant themes, as even quite sober researchers seem seduced by the promise—intellectual and financial—of a topic whose payoff seems always just out of reach.”

Author of Ordinarily Well and Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University

“Daniel Horowitz has accomplished an impressive feat: A thorough and judicious history of positive psychology– a movement both influential and controversial.”

HOWARD GARDNER, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University

“Kudos to cultural historian Daniel Horowitz for comprehensively chronicling the emergence of positive psychology—“a cultural movement of tremendous reach and power.” Thanks to its impressive scholarship and lucid story-telling, Happier? is the go-to book for anyone seeking to understand the roots and fruits of modern happiness research.”

DAVID G. MYERS, Hope College, author The Pursuit of Happiness: Who is Happy—and Why