The Happiness of the British Working Class
Jamie L. Bronstein


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

The introduction situates this project within the field of history of the emotions, and also explains why nineteenth-century working-class autobiographies are a particularly good source of information about the experience of happiness.

1 Interrogating Autobiographies
chapter abstract

This chapter interrogates working-class autobiographies as source material, focusing on questions of verification of material, the nature of the audience for these documents, and authors' motivations for writing. It weighs the drawbacks of the dataset—gender and regional bias and the impact of differential literacy—against the insights a historian can only gain from firsthand narratives.

2 The Simple Pleasures of Childhood
chapter abstract

This chapter explores the joys and contentments of working-class children as described by working-class autobiographers. These include relationships with parents, extended family members, and the wider community; a few possessions; simple foods; and outdoor play. It also considers the pleasures of contributing to the family economy and the importance of Sundays for leisure.

3 Work and Flow
chapter abstract

Many autobiographers described intellectually engaging work, and sometimes, periods of "flow," in which they lost track of time. Factors associated with enjoyment of work included novelty, creativity, adventure, autonomy to determine work processes, aesthetically appealing workplaces, a good fit between the worker and the job, and pleasant coworkers.

4 Life Is with People
chapter abstract

This chapter emphasizes the importance of marriage, family relationships over time and distance, friendship ties, and community celebrations to the experience of happiness for nineteenth-century workers. This chapter also explores the satisfaction of participating in "prosocial behavior," as similarly situated low-income people engaged in networks of mutual support.

5 The Natural World
chapter abstract

Working-class autobiographers displayed a sense of environmentalism, gravitating to the outdoors for solitude, aesthetic pleasures, objects for research, and playthings and food. Social reformers who promoted gardening as rational recreation overlapped with existing working-class desires for natural beauty and supplementation of diet.

6 Self-Cultivation
chapter abstract

While few autobiographers born before 1870 praised organized education, many described the joys of self-cultivation, including reading, book-borrowing, poetry, self-directed research, and music. This emphasis on lifelong learning rather than momentary hedonism is associated with norms of respectability.

7 The Way of Duty
chapter abstract

Some autobiographers portrayed religious, personal, social, or political duty—rather than hedonic pleasures—as a life goal. Within the dominant Christian nineteenth-century mental frame, religious and nonreligious activists used conversion narratives as a model. Teetotal activists, Chartists, trade unionists, Socialists, and others embraced a eudaimoniac version of the good life.

8 Absent Happiness
chapter abstract

Some autobiographers were silent or nearly silent on the subject of happiness. Commonalities among these authors include such factors as illness, disability, extreme poverty, lack of physical safety, deprivation of human dignity, and lack of reflection on internal states.

9 Sadness, Fear, and Anger
chapter abstract

This chapter briefly explores the experience and display of sadness, fear, and anger in working-class autobiographies. Workers experienced sadness largely in connection with grief and loss, but men were expected not to cry in public. Writers associated fear with irrationality, women and children, and rural people. Respectable male workers were increasingly expected to control their anger.

10 The Past and the Present Converse
chapter abstract

This chapter shows how nineteenth-century working-class autobiographies contribute to modern research in happiness studies. Autobiographers did not focus much on cheerful moods, but believed happiness was dispositional. Hedonic treadmill effects were not seen, and autobiographers displayed adaptation to circumstances. The U-shaped happiness curve is supported by evidence from firsthand narratives.

11 Conclusion
chapter abstract

The conclusion summarizes the preceding chapters and points out several thematic through-lines, including the importance of social ties and community to many working-class pleasures, and the inexpensiveness of noncommercial leisure activities. It also situates the work within a longer historiography on the workers' standards of living in the nineteenth century.