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Historical Secrets to Happiness

Has the latest fad, “positive psychology,” increased our happiness? Not according to a British author and cultural historian.

Positive psychology, defined as “the study of optimal human functioning,” has gained enormous popularity in the past decade. But Richard Schoch, professor of the history of culture at Queen Mary, University of London and author of The Secrets of Happiness: Three Thousand Years of Searching for the Good Life, said there is more to be learned instead from the wisdom of the ancients.

In an April 2007 lecture at the University of London, he said that “in ancient Athens, happiness was a civic virtue that demanded a lifetime’s cultivation. Now, it’s everybody’s birthright. Somewhere between Plato and Prozac, happiness stopped being a lofty achievement and became an entitlement.” So in a journey across cultures and centuries, Schoch contemplated exactly what it takes to be happy. And it’s not “positive psychology.” So many of its recommendations sound trivial or just confused, Schoch said, because it is based on a flawed premise.

The assumption that happiness equals positive emotion and the avoidance of pain and suffering may make happiness measurable, but it is “a woefully insufficient model,” Schoch said. Positive emotions usually are temporary and it is impossible to feel good all the time.

So if we give up on the idea that to be happy is to feel good, what’s left? A deeper, more subtle and more profoundly satisfying happiness, Schoch said. Releasing our attachment to positive emotions means we can enjoy them without worrying about if and when they will end. What’s more, we can explore new ideas of what happiness can mean.

For example, in his book, Schoch relates the story of an 11th-century Iraqi scholar named al-Ghazali. Rather than trying to think positively or improve his lifestyle, al-Ghazali explored what his distress could teach him. He found that he had been valuing material possessions too highly, was ruled by his pride, and had reached a spiritual emergency. Continued thought brought him to a new philosophy: “cultivate the most precious form possible from the rough matter of your life.” His book, The Alchemy of Happiness, guided readers to transform their vices into virtues.

Research has shown that nations with higher mean incomes rate lower in happiness than poorer nations do. This suggests that a minimum of material comfort is necessary. True happiness requires a shift of focus from instant to delayed gratification and to helping others as well as ourselves.

Psychologists also highlight the importance of “flow,” a term to describe the common denominator among people who label themselves happy. The most obvious component is intense concentration, which probably is why music, art, literature, sports and other forms of leisure have survived. The essential ingredient for such concentration is a challenge to match one’s ability in areas such as music, art, literature, and sports.


Schoch, Richard. The Secrets of Happiness: Three Thousand Years of Searching for the Good Life. November 2006: Scribner.

Do You Sincerely Want To Be Happy? Richard Schoch, April 2006.

The Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania

Historical Secrets to Happiness

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Jane Collingwood

Jane Collingwood is a longtime regular contributing journalist to Psych Central, focusing on topics of mental health and dissecting recent research findings.

APA Reference
Collingwood, J. (2016). Historical Secrets to Happiness. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 May 2016
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 May 2016
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