The Happiness of the British Working Class
Jamie L. Bronstein



LOOKING BACK ON HIS LIFE AT the age of eighty, William Hutton, who had risen from poverty to become a bookbinder, papermaker, landowner, and writer, considered the question of happiness at length, under the heading “What is a happy life?”:

Suppose a man endeavours after health, and his endeavours are blessed with such success that, by a proper use of his animal powers, he can, at fourscore, walk thirty miles a day. Suppose him, by assiduity and temperance, to have attained a complete independence, that he can reside in a house to his wish, with a garden for use and amusement, is blessed with a son and daughter of the most affectionate kind, who attentively watch his little wants with a view to supply them; add as an appendage to this little family a pair of old and faithful horses who are strangers to the lash, and whose value increases with the years. Still add to a taste for reading, the benefits arising from a library of choice Authors. Would you pronounce this a happy man? That man is myself. Though my morning was lowering, my evening is sunshine.1

John Britton, who started life as a wine-bottler’s apprentice before becoming a writer, penned a similar gloss on happiness, considering his penchant for finding nature and art delightful, loving to read, and having “an affectionate and amiable wife, the esteem of many good and estimable men, and an intimacy, I hope friendship, with several eminent and distinguished personages.”2

Of what did happiness consist for British working people in the nineteenth century? That is the central question addressed in this study. The question may seem puzzling, since it implies that human emotions are not simply biological facts but also mental constructs based on common physiological experiences. A person may experience a negatively inflected state of high physical arousal, and yet whether she perceives or describes that experience as anger or fear or disgust depends at least in part on the social context in which the event occurs.3 But is happiness an emotion, or is it something else? Philosophers have made a cottage industry out of assessing competing views on this question. Some argue that happiness is reducible to sensory pleasure (hedonism); others that we are happy when our desires are satisfied; others that happiness is an attitudinal disposition; and still others that there is some objective standard of human flourishing against which a particular person’s well-being can be measured.4 Still others endorse “whole life satisfaction” as a definition of happiness: that we are happy if we judge that our lives have gone well.

Hutton and Britton, looking back on their lives from the perspective of old age, each made a cognitive judgment that they had lived happy lives, comparing their experiences against a list of criteria that each thought necessary or sufficient for happiness. But this long-term retrospective assessment was not the only way in which working-class autobiographers described happiness. As this book will show, they also recounted positive dispositions of character; experiences that brought laughter; transient states of intense joy or rapture that made them weep happy tears; activities or states of affairs that made them feel contentment or lose track of time in a pleasurable way. They described happiness in ways that might include any or all these reactions to good states of affairs. In all these ways, they behaved as though they considered happiness to be an emotional state that was phenomenologically consistent, persistent, central, and had the ability to drive behavior.5 But not all of them even considered maximization of happiness as the key to the good life. Some thought social, political, or religious change, pursued as a duty, to be life’s goal. Others experienced extreme poverty, disability, or illness and did not focus on happiness in their autobiographies; their writings help to delineate the shortcomings of Victorian society. This book explores the happiness of working-class people in an era of intense social and economic change, through the prism of 363 working-class autobiographies of Britons born between 1750 and 1870.6

As Darrin McMahon pointed out in 2014, happiness has received less focus from historians of the emotions than have fear, anger, grief, and shame.7 Moreover, the histories of happiness that do exist tend to focus on happiness as expressed in normative literature, rather than exploring the phenomenology of happiness conveyed through firsthand narratives.8 Scholars have been quite creative about mining sources for the history of the emotions, looking variously at artistic productions, folklore, normative sources like conduct manuals, funeral and burial practices, and wills. But studies exploring and contextualizing the emotional histories of ordinary working people are rare.9 This study, focused on a discrete time, place, and social class, should serve as a partial corrective.

Some historians, heavily influenced by neuropsychologists, see emotions as primarily biological, prior to rational judgment, and universal. Others see emotions as “cogmotions”—attempts intellectually to grapple with or translate emotional judgments.10 But most historians of the emotions believe that the experience of certain emotions is historically and culturally contingent: that people perceive, name, act out, and display their feelings (or “moods” or “passions”) through cultural and chronological frames. Although its origins have been credited to the work of Lucien Febvre and Norbert Elias in the early twentieth century, the modern field of emotions history began to flourish in the 1980s with the work of Peter and Carol Stearns. They developed “emotionology,” focusing on the emotional proscriptions and prescriptions specified by the normative texts of specific times and places: conduct books, popular magazines, children’s’ literature, sermons, etc.11 Normative literature can be combined with the external perception of emotional display. Thus, Christina Kotchemidova has argued that the rules of emotional display in the nineteenth-century United States called for conversational candor and the expression of positive affect; travelers from England found Americans to be unusual in this respect.12

A slightly different historiographical trajectory, initiated by William Reddy, proposes that entire nations at various times have had “emotional regimes,” or structures of expectation about emotional experience and display. For Reddy, these regimes have coexisted alongside “emotional refuges,” which provide more emotional liberty.13 A third trajectory, identified with Barbara Rosenwein, argues that emotional expression has always coexisted alongside emotional restraint, and that people move among multiple “emotional communities.”14 As a longtime student of labor-and working-class history, I approached the topic with the belief that nineteenth-century British working people shared a culture and thus most likely shared an emotional community or communities.

This project is a social and cultural history of happiness as it was lived by working people in industrializing Britain, drawn from a careful examination of their own words. Which activities, experiences, and relationships made them content, satisfied, or joyful? How can we know what working people thought about their own happiness? Their narratives about their whole lives are replete with descriptions of emotional experience. I learned, through wide reading, that while many working-class Britons may have participated in shared emotional communities, not all did; that geography, upward mobility, gender, religious belief, political commitments, and lack of basic economic resources all influenced the way in which they defined and experienced their emotional lives.

Nineteenth-century Britain is a prime historical setting for an exploration of working-class happiness. The expansion of literacy, the availability of printing, and the notion that working people’s lives might have some inherent value or interest led to a profusion of autobiographical writing. Emotions in general, and happiness in particular, were the subject of a larger cultural discourse in that time and place.15 British thinkers and policymakers in the nineteenth century argued about the nature of the good life, and some of their ideas are still cornerstones of the philosophical literature on happiness.16 The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed that happiness was a function of pleasure. He argued that the utility of any experience—its ratio of pleasure to pain—could be mathematically calculated. About pleasure Bentham was notoriously nonjudgmental, quipping that pushpin (a game) was as good as poetry. He maintained that individual utilities could be added together and generalized into policies intended to produce societal happiness, and that the goal of social policy should be to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number. Bentham’s protégé, John Stuart Mill, disagreed, claiming that, particularly when designing national policies, the “higher pleasures” of art, education, and culture were superior to the “lower pleasures” of satiating animal desires. While most working-class autobiographers had not read Bentham or Mill, they had views on these questions.17

Furthermore, the prescriptive literature on happiness was influenced by class. For those who could afford it, the eighteenth century had ushered in an era of happiness through consumption: more comfortably appointed houses, toys for children, pleasure gardens, attractive public spaces, exotic food.18 In the nineteenth century, the recipe for contentment shifted from consumption to consanguinity. Men belonging to a growing middle class were urged to cultivate familial happiness by expressing affection and willingness to compromise; the most coveted happiness being a low-key, stoic satisfaction and contentment.19 Novels and domestic manuals intended for middle-class women emphasized a social version of happiness within the family. Women were directed to perform or oversee household tasks thoughtfully, set a good moral example, provide a ready ear, and counteract the competitive and masculine world of the market. Aristocratic women were directed to host others within their circle, pursue charitable outreach to the local community, hone their accomplishments in music, drawing, embroidery, or amateur theatricals, participate in sports and games, and pass the time in conversation with a small group of similarly situated women.20 Upwardly mobile working people might aim to pattern their lives after these normative scripts, but, as this book will show, working-class people also created their own.

Asking questions about happiness in the early nineteenth century not only broadens our knowledge about the valuation and the nature of happiness in the past but can also create a dialogue with the interdisciplinary field of “happiness studies” that has matured since the 1990s. The existence of the field of happiness studies, with its own journals, tells us much about our own social priorities.21 Books about how to be happier have flown off the shelves. Scholars have found correlations between happiness and a host of positive outcomes, including better health and happier marriages.22 But it is relatively rare for these social-scientific investigations to incorporate (or even acknowledge) historical studies. Writing in 1999, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi complained that comparative studies about happiness through time were lacking. In 2018, historians Barbara Rosenwein and Riccardo Cristiani still lamented historians’ exclusion from the modern scientific research on emotions.23

Mining working-class autobiographies from the nineteenth century can inform the modern social science literature on happiness by showing how the modern literature itself is historically contingent. To give just one example: the economist Richard Easterlin and his co-authors argued that wealth and happiness are not always correlated in the modern West; that once a certain rather low level of comfort has been reached, people adapt to that level of comfort, want more, and feel “relative deprivation” compared with others in their society who have more; they are on a “hedonic treadmill.”24 Working-class autobiographies, in contrast, put little emphasis on materialism as a cornerstone of happiness. In a preface to the autobiography of Joseph Gutteridge, William Jolly noted that “amid the growing luxury of our age and the overestimate of mere surroundings as necessary to happiness, it is of inestimable service to humanity to be, from time to time, recalled to the true pleasures of plain living and high thinking.”25 There is a lot to unpack here. Was Gutteridge adapting to social and economic constraints when he recalled his nonmaterialistic happiness? Was Jolly reacting to the beginnings of the “hedonic treadmill” by proposing an older set of norms? As chapter 10 shows, the nineteenth century has some valuable lessons for the twenty-first.26

This book consists of a chapter that evaluates the sources, eight chapters that explore happiness thematically, and a cross-disciplinary final chapter directed at the field of happiness studies. Chapter 1, “Interrogating Autobiographies,” considers some potential drawbacks about using life writing as a source for the history of the emotions. It investigates the questions of verifying authorship, the motivations of working-class autobiographers, and the influences of genre conventions and audience expectations on included and excluded topics. Complicating things even further is the possibility that talking about or writing about how we are feeling—as life-writers do—has the potential to alter those feelings. Statements made about emotions experienced in the past pose additional challenges.27 Although due to differential levels of literacy the autobiographies are not representative either by geographical region of the British Isles or by gender, this chapter argues for the importance of the sources as some of the only evidence we have about the inner lives of nineteenth-century working people.

The thematic chapters of the book invite the reader to dive into the social and emotional worlds of British working people born before 1870. Each of these chapters explores happiness as it relates to a topic in British social or cultural history that in turn has its own deep historiography. While I am thus indebted to the expertise of many scholars, my contribution here is to expand our knowledge of what it felt like to be a member of the British working class by linking writers’ positive emotional experiences and assessments to these topics. To borrow a phrase from Sarah Ahmed, “Happiness might play a crucial role in shaping our near sphere, the world that takes shape around us, as a world of familiar things.”28 Investigating happiness enlightens for us the “near sphere” of working people, building a rich social and cultural history out of the autobiographers’ own words.

Chapter 2, “The Simple Pleasures of Childhood,” chronicles the ways in which autobiographers, largely writing in adulthood or old age, felt nostalgia for the period in their lives in which they were freest from economic and familial responsibilities. Almost all autobiographers elaborated on the primary pleasures of childhood, including shelter and warmth, parental or grandparental presence, comforting foods, and a few playthings. Some facets of working-class childhood emerged unexpectedly and repeatedly. For example, for children who were put to work at an early age, contributing to the family economy could evoke joy and pride. Nonetheless, Sundays were joyful days, promising physical freedom, the opportunity for sleep, and the intellectual stimulation of Sunday school.

The industrial transformation of nineteenth-century Britain occurred unevenly by region and chronology. Thus, occupations of autobiographers in the study range widely: from soldier or sailor to farmworker to miner to metalworker to domestic servant. As chapter 3, “Work and Flow,” demonstrates, some working people (notably, not factory workers) found their occupations or avocations so satisfying that time slipped away without their noticing, producing what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi terms a “flow state.” Workers also associated happiness in the workplace with factors like the opportunity for innovation and creativity (sometimes pursued through projects outside of work hours), autonomy, a feeling of respect in the workplace, and like-minded co-workers (some workers preferred a playful workplace, with practical jokes; others, being surrounded by sober and focused co-workers).

Chapter 4, “Life Is with People,” delves into the importance of social ties. Starting with the most intimate relationships and moving outward, it explores happiness in the context of romantic relationships and marriage. It was very common for autobiographers to document the joyful atmosphere of the newlywed household and to credit their happiness to long-standing marital relationships (although interestingly, second marriages tended to be much less happy). But they also depended on wider networks of friends and family, and in a historical moment in which leave-taking for work or emigration was common, scenes of grief-stricken parting and joyful reunion recur. Working people—particularly men—were expanding their social horizons from extended-family members and drinking companions to encompass the friendships they formed with co-workers, co-religionists, and like-minded strivers. Finally, celebrations like holiday weeks, fairs, and races provided opportunities to feel a sense of connection to a wider community; individual commemorations of important national events stood out to writers even decades later.

Chapter 5, “The Natural World,” shows that many working-class autobiographers cared deeply about the environment; the attempts by rational recreationists to draw them out into the countryside overlapped rather than conflicted with workers’ desires. Autobiographers sought the outdoors for leisure, exercise, solitude, and quiet. (Interestingly, there are few descriptions of trespassing, ball-playing in inappropriate areas, or loud picnicking.) They were apt to see the appeal of rugged, sublime, and pastoral landscapes. They found the countryside full of resources outside the constraints of the market: fish, berries, birds’ nests, and components that could be made into simple toys; and they wrote about the enjoyment produced by growing vegetables and flowers. The psychological transports produced by nature undermine the argument that workers experienced higher wages and increased opportunities for consumption as completely positive developments, given the relationship between industrialization and the destruction of the environment.

Chapter 6, “Self-Cultivation,” explores the relationship between happiness and intellectual development. Bentham may have equated the pleasure of poetry with the pleasure of the game of pushpin, but working-class autobiographers (likely influenced by normative expectations about respectability) had much more to say about the former than the latter. This chapter shows that many found delight in avidly reading whatever material they could get their hands on through networks of book-borrowing and intellectual patronage. They experienced the joys of self-directed research, becoming collectors and classifiers, amateur botanists and geologists. A few gained access to musical instruments, sometimes using them as leverage for upward mobility. All (except for those who dictated their autobiographies to others) were authors, but many were also poets who burst with pride when their works were published for the first time.

For some writers more oriented toward the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia, happiness was not the measure of a life well lived, as chapter 7, “The Way of Duty,” shows. Rather, such a life entailed accomplishment, or at least a steadfast commitment toward improving humankind. This axiology was common among Chartists, trade unionists, and Socialists, but also among temperance lecturers and Methodist preachers, suggesting that neither class position nor ideology solely dictated membership in an emotional community. This chapter also illustrates the relationship between happiness and religious belief. In an age of evangelical emphasis on sinfulness, for many autobiographers the transformation to professed belief was associated with joy, relief, and a kind of fatalism as they handed over responsibilities to God. Chapter 8, “Absent Happiness,” considers those autobiographers whose life writing made no mention, or almost no mention, of happiness. Ill health or extreme poverty prevented individuals from achieving their life goals or engaging in self-reflection about the good life.

Chapter 9, “Sadness, Fear, and Anger,” reflects on some of the more negative emotions expressed in working-class autobiographies. It explores working-class autobiographers’ expressions of grief at the loss of loved ones, particularly their partners and children, and the tension between men’s tears, which were shed in private, and their later willingness to write about having shed tears in private. It shows that autobiographers associated fear with childhood or rusticity, and used anecdotes about fear for comic relief. Finally, it demonstrates that working-class autobiographers wrote less about anger than about other emotions, tentatively suggesting that for most writers, changing mores around the uncontrolled expression of anger or the use of interpersonal violence shaped what was socially acceptable to divulge.

Finally, chapter 10, “The Past and the Present Converse,” reviews hypotheses about subjective well-being posed by modern philosophers and social scientists, and the way in which my research about happiness among nineteenth-century working people supports or challenges these. Many British working-class autobiographers described being happier in childhood and old age than in midlife, when family concerns and economic stresses were at their height. This is a characteristic of modern life review that contemporary scholars call the “U-shaped happiness curve.” In contrast, very few working-class autobiographers discussed feeling pressure or unhappiness caused by comparing their own social standing with that of their neighbors. While much of the modern philosophical literature focuses on cheerful moods as a sign of substantive well-being, I show that working-class autobiographers distrusted moods, describing them as part of a complex of whipsawing emotions sometimes associated with insanity or religious enthusiasm taken to an extreme.

By the end of each autobiography I read for this project, I felt as though I had been allowed a privileged glimpse into the life of a long-dead person through his or her own unique voice, conveyed variously by the rhythm of the writing, the lightness of humor and depth of seriousness, the joy in successes and struggle with hardships. The result of reading working-class autobiographies through the prism of happiness is a wide-ranging reflection on the industrial-era working-class experience: on family, friends, work, interaction with the natural world, science and creativity, political causes and religious commitments, physical and economic struggles.


1. William Hutton, The Life of William Hutton, FASS (London: Baldwin, 1817), 247. Modern scholars comment on the existence of a U-shaped happiness curve over the course of a lifetime, suggesting that childhood and old age are the periods of greatest happiness. Hutton’s narrative coheres with this interpretation. See chapter 10 for more details.

2. John Britton, The Beauties of Wiltshire (London: J. Noves, 1825), xlvii.

3. Kristen Lindquist, Karen S. Quigley, Erika H. Siegel, and Lisa Feldman Barrett, “The Hundred-Year Emotion War: Are Emotions Natural Kinds or Psychological Constructions? Comment on Lench, Flores, and Bench,” Psychological Bulletin 139, no. 1 (2013): 255–63; Kristin Lindquist, Suzanne Oosterwijk, Maria Gendron, and Lisa Feldman Barrett, “Do People Essentialize Emotions? Individual Differences in Emotion Essentialism and Emotional Experience,” Emotion 13, no. 4 (2013): 629–44; Nicole Eustace, Eugenia Lean, Julie Livingston, Jan Plamper, William Reddy, and Barbara Rosenwein, “AHR Conversations: The Historical Study of Emotions,” American Historical Review 115, no. 5 (December 2012): 1487–530, at 1506.

4. Fred Feldman explores the various theories and their proponents in What Is This Thing Called Happiness? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), passim.

5. On happiness and other emotions as “cluster concepts,” see Alan H. Goldman, “Happiness Is an Emotion,” Journal of Ethics 27 (2017): 1–16. On the qualities that render happiness an emotional state, see Mauro Rossi, “Happiness, Pleasure, and Emotions,” Philosophical Psychology 31, no. 6 (2018): 898–919.

6. The chronological cut-off point provides a manageable sample of life-writers who were forced to adapt to the economic changes of the nineteenth century.

7. Darrin McMahon, “Finding Joy in the History of the Emotions,” in Doing Emotions History, ed. Susan J. Matt and Peter Stearns, 103–19 (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013).

8. See, for example, Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006); Nicholas P. White, A Brief History of Happiness (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006); Adam Potkay, The Story of Joy: From the Bible to Late Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

9. Thomas C. Buchanan, “Class Sentiments: Putting the Emotion Back in Working-Class History,” Journal of Social History 48, no. 1 (2014): 72–87.

10. Jan Plamper explores the history of the tension between biological theories of emotion and social constructivist theories in The History of Emotions: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 76–146.

11. A good summary of the historiography can be found in Susan J. Matt and Peter Stearns, Doing Emotions History (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 17–38. For the crucial early works on the history of the emotions, see Carol and Peter Stearns, “Emotionology: Clarifying the History of Emotions and Emotional Standards,” American Historical Review 90 (1985): 813–36; and Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America’s History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); and Peter Stearns, Jealousy: The Evolution of an Emotion in American History (New York: NYU Press, 1989); American Cool: Constructing a 20th-Century Emotional Style (New York: NYU Press, 1994); Battleground of Desire: The Struggle for Self-Control in Modern America (New York: NYU Press, 1999); and American Fear: The Causes and Consequences of High Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 2006).

12. Christina Kotchemidova, “From Good Cheer to ‘Drive-by Smiling’: A Social History of Cheerfulness,” Journal of Social History 39, no. 1 (2005): 5–37; for a great modern example of emotionology, see the export of American smiling practice to Russian McDonalds employees in Alix Spiegel, “Changing Social Norms Can Save Your Life,” Invisibilia Podcast, National Public Radio, available at

13. William Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of the Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

14. Barbara Rosenwein, “Worrying about Emotions in History,” American Historical Review 107, no. 3 (June 2002): 821–45; Barbara Rosenwein, Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006). On the clashing of historical schools, see Rob Boddice, The History of Emotions (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018), 208–10.

15. Thomas Dixon, “The Psychology of the Emotions in Britain and America in the Nineteenth Century: The Role of Religious and Antireligious Commitments,” Osiris 16 (2001): 288–320.

16. On the evolving history of concepts of happiness or the relevance of happiness as a category, see Robert Darnton, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” Wilson Quarterly 19, no. 4 (1995): 42–53.

17. Iris Mauss, Maya Tamir, Craig Anderson, and Nicole Savino, “Can Seeking Happiness Make People Unhappy? Paradoxical Effects of Valuing Happiness,” Emotion 11, no. 4 (2011): 807–15; James E. Crimmins, “Jeremy Bentham,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (summer 2020 edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, available at, last accessed October 11, 2020.

18. Roy Porter, “Happy Hedonists,” British Medical Journal 321, no. 7276 (December 23–30, 2000): 1572–75.

19. Thomas Hardy Society, “Negotiating the Emotional Habitus of the Middle Classes in The Mayor of Casterbridge,” Thomas Hardy Journal 28 (2011): 44–67.

20. Caroline Austin-Bolt, “Sarah Ellis’s The Women of England: Domestic Happiness and Gender Performance,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 37, no. 3 (2015): 183–95; Pamela Horn, Ladies of the Manor: Wives and Daughters in Country-house Society, 1830–1918 (Phoenix Mills: Alan Sutton, 1991), 111–36.

21. Sarah Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 4.

22. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener, “The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?” Psychological Bulletin 131, no. 6 (2005): 803–55.

23. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, “If We Are So Rich, Why Aren’t We Happy?” American Psychologist 54, no. 10 (1999): 821–27; Barbara H. Rosenwein and Riccardo Cristiani, What Is the History of Emotions? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018), 105–7.

24. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, “If We Are So Rich”; Richard A. Easterlin, Laura Angelescu McVey, Malgorzata Switek, Onnicha Sawangfa, and Jacqueline Smith Zweig, “The Happiness–Income Paradox Revisited,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, no. 52 (December 28, 2010): 22463–68.

25. Valerie E. Chancellor, ed., Master and Artisan in Victorian England: The Diary of William Andrews and the Autobiography of Joseph Gutteridge (New York: Augustus Kelley, 1969), 77.

26. Arthur A. Stone and Christopher Mackie, eds., Subjective Well-Being: Measuring Happiness, Suffering, and Other Dimensions of Experience (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2013), 78, 94.

27. Reddy, Navigation of Feeling, 105–6.

28. Ahmed, Promise of Happiness, 24.