Happiness and the Urban Ideal

The vexed question of happiness seems always to stalk the contemporary urbanite.  With even the most causal glance at London’s evening press, we find ourselves assailed on the one hand by jeremiads lamenting the pressures and anxieties of city living, and on those other by those visions of the good life through which we might seek emotional release and contentment.  Hedonistic pleasure, consumption, the pursuit of meaning and virtue, or escape to the comforts of hearth and home – all are proffered in some form as possible solutions to the stresses of urban living, whilst at the same time being born of the opportunities inherent in that self-same metropolitan life.

These paradoxes and preoccupations are far from new.  The idea of the city both as a machine for the production of happiness and, simultaneously, as a blight upon every human joy, are deeply rooted in the thought and lived experience of urban modernity.  This strand seeks to examine the origins of these interlinked contemporary debates regarding the urban ideal and emotional well-being, tracing their development within the context of late Victorian and Edwardian London.  These decades were a crucial turning point in this regard, marked as they were by a sense of cultural, social and political upheaval which served to undermine an earlier, more naive faith in urban civilisation as a mechanism for perpetual progress.  From this crisis emerged new visions both of the nature of the subjective well-being of individual Londoners, and of the metropole itself.  Yet the exact relationship between these conceptions both of happiness, and of the ideal city to which they attached, remains poorly understood.  What meanings then were given to happiness in this period?  How did the search for emotional well-being manifest itself in everyday life?  What consequences did this have for the shape of the city and, more broadly, urban modernity itself?  And, ultimately perhaps, what legacy have these debates bequeathed to the London of the twenty-first century?

The Happiness and the Urban Ideal strand is led by Ed Brooker, a PhD student on Living with Feeling.