A Rhetorical Analysis of Darrin McMahon’s “In Pursuit of Unhappiness”

← Healthy People 2020 Impact Paper

Happiness seems to be something that can be defined by anyone even little children but does this state of well-being that is characterized by emotions of contentment and intense joy have a history? Maybe it does because it is associated with human beings as Mansfield (2006, p. 30) states. If there is human nature, then there is human happiness, and this happiness seemingly is available to all the humans at all the times and places. Thus, if happiness has a history then it does not lack some scope for change. There should be some doubt in understanding or defining it as every individual wants to be happy and gratify his/her temporary pleasures. However, what makes happiness an irony is that most individuals do not know how to define it.

Darrin McMahon’ has extensively discussed the issue called happiness in great detail in his work “In Pursuit of Unhappiness”. In this description happiness has been interpreted in a modern way and the writer tells how to attain and approach this mirth. This essay makes a rhetorical analysis as it demonstrates how the author employs the use of all the three elements of the rhetorical appeals: ethos, logos, and pathos. He uses pathos to appeal to his audience about the beliefs towards happiness, he uses logos as his text is based on logic, reasoning, and evidence to effectively appeal to his audience. Ethos is seen in the text as his character and expertise as a historian pleases his audience and makes them think critically about the subject of happiness. The author wrote this text to change the traditional norm about happiness as he is trying to persuade his audience that happiness is achieved when one gives his/her attention to others.


The writer of the text “In Pursuit of Unhappiness” is a historian Darrin McMahon. McMahon (2005) describes himself as a college professor of History subject at Dartmouth College, a scholar, and a public speaker. Apart from this text he has also written other books. His experience, knowledge, and wit as a historian, professor, researcher and a scholar brings out the element of ethos in the text as his credibility convinces his audience on his beliefs about happiness. When McMahon was writing this text, his purpose was to give a different perception to happiness from the usual traditional norm of the same. Mansfield (2006, p. 30) argues that McMahon believes in the Aristotle's Greek definition of happiness that says happiness is attained in death but excludes Aristotle's conclusion of happiness where he thinks happiness is about having a noble birth, having excellent and many friends, having a lot of wealth, having luck, good old age, beauty, good health, honor, virtues, etc. This demonstrates logos as his reasoning is not an imagination but a conclusion from researched works of Aristotle. Mansfield (2006, p. 31) states that McMahon felt the need to write this text as he wanted to divert the American from classical idea of happiness. He wanted people to change their perception by making his audience to become more concerned about others. McMahon claims that for one to pursue his/her happiness, he/she will have no choice other than to see outside himself/herself and make efforts to make others happy first. This way he/she will achieve happiness that will be long-lasting.


McMahon's “In Pursuit of Unhappiness” has no specific audience. The text was addressed to Americans as well as to people from the rest of the world. According to Lanchester (2006, p. 79) this text was written and published on December 25, 2005, in Atlantic Monthly Press in America during the times when McMahon used to be a historian in Florida State University. The factors that surrounded the events of the text are the belief in the American dream. as According to McMahon (2005), after the declaration of independence Americans were urged to pursue happiness and they were made to believe that if one wants to be happy, he/she must do everything in his/her power to make life perfect to achieve happiness. It is unattainable that life is full of ups and downs, it comes with both negativity and positivity which eventually bring heartbreaks and traumas. McMahon wanted to show his audience that happiness can only be achieved after one experiences a heartbreak. This way life will be appreciated more and people will have the capability to grow from the negative experience and accept that there is no such a perfect thing as happy life. Pathos is openly portrayed here as this statement is an emotional appeal, it makes the audience feel pity for themselves.


McMahon’s overall tone of the text is ironic, pragmatic and pensive. His use of words and writing style to convey his attitude towards the subject of happiness is ironic. Here the element of logos is evident as he uses logical reasoning to discuss happiness and makes it appear the opposite of what it means. It is also pragmatic as well as his writing depicts him being realistic and a man of sensible character which brings out ethos. McMahon (2005) says he has explored philosophical and economic ideas across-the-board and he points out the strong continuities in his text. Ethos also takes place as the author has researched this topic before writing and wrote the text based on the introspective and philosophical grounds quoting economists Richard Layard and Daniel Kahneman, and philosophers Carlyle and John Mill.


The genre employed in this kind of literature is rhetoric because McMahon’s writing is nonfiction and he uses a language that effectively persuades his audience. His language displays pathos as it makes the audience feel compassion for themselves. The strategy McMahon employs is a short work of related theories and a tone of sincerity. He does not follow a prescribed methodology. Lanchester (2006, p. 80) points out that McMahon used sources from the founding fathers of happiness to convey his passion and authority on the same subject. His deviation from the norm of the pursuit of happiness brings out the element of ethos as the text depicts the understanding of happiness in the 18th century and at the time of American declaration of independence was misunderstood.


McMahon is rhetorically effective as his emotional language pleases the audience and this displays pathos. He clearly defines and discusses what he thinks happiness is. McMahon (2005) uses John Mill's description of happiness as his own. This text moves me as the author strongly trusts that happiness is not about oneself but it is for those whose minds are fixed on some object apart from their happiness for the sake of others’ happiness. The text also makes me think critically and different about the subject of happiness as McMahon also effectively convinces me that the only way I can be happy is by making others happy.

To conclude, this work demonstrates that McMahon utilizes ethos, pathos and logos elements of the rhetorical appeals. McMahon uses pathos in an emotional tone to invoke sympathy and makes his audience feel the importance of being concerned about others to attain happiness. His sensible character, rational thinking brings ethos which makes the audience feel what McMahon feels himself and draws pity from the audience. Lastly, McMahon uses logos to cite scholars. He logically and passionately expresses his thoughts concerning happiness and successfully appeals to his audience to meditate analytically. Using pathos, ethos and logos, the subject of happiness is perceived differently than the way it used to be.

Finally, everyone wishes to be happy. It does not depend on the situation one is in, whether one is doing something he/she loves or is with a person he/she loves. Whether one is enjoying peacefulness and the comfort of his/her home or playing in the fields. What matters the most is to sit down and think about life, how beneficial it would be if every person respected others, enjoyed others’ company and gave material and emotional support. This will make people happy and the world a bit better.