Book Reviews - Winter 2011

Ode to Joy

What makes us happy?

By Priscilla Long | December 1, 2010


Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science, by Sissela Bok, Yale University Press, 218 pp., $24

This thin book is thick with questions, philosophies, psychologies, and current scientific thinking about happiness. Are you happy? Perhaps you are deluded, in denial about your circumstances. Or perhaps not. Perhaps you are like the biologist and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, contributor to brain studies, whose “sense of flourishing” has caused him to be hailed as “one of the happiest persons on earth.” But, is lasting happiness possible? Is it amenable to effort, intention, striving? No, according to Freud. Happiness is about pleasure, and pleasure is transitory. Yes, according to late-20th-century research that has discovered that “economic growth, freedom of choice, respect for human rights, and social tolerance all contribute to greater happiness.” Finally, does happiness have anything to do with ethics? Yes, according to philosopher and ethicist Sissela Bok.

Bok explores happiness as it was experienced, discussed, reflected upon, and researched by philosophers and scientists from Aristotle to Augustine to Freud to Ed Diener, a psychologist who studies “subjective well-being.” (These pages contain much Western and virtually no Eastern philosophy. The Dalai Lama, for in­stance, who has written and spoken extensively about happiness, re­ceives a mere nod.)

Bok considers happiness not as an un­questioned good, but in light of morality. Her strategy is to spell out dozens of divergent (Western) views and to take something from each. She is both tolerant and critical. She likes the idea of happiness but considers it against a backdrop of human suffering. Do we want happiness if it is what a serial killer feels after committing his latest atrocity?

Bok begins by presenting an eclectic batch of subjective experiences as recorded in journals and memoirs. Nabokov writes of the joy of standing among rare butterflies: “This is ecstasy … . A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern.” Darwin got his particular “thrill with delight” at the thought of writing a book. Thus may intellectual and creative strivings generate contentment, joy, and even bliss. Iris Murdoch, the novelist and phi­losopher, “points to the importance of learning to pay attention to deep areas of sensibility and creative imagination.” But what are Bok’s experiences? What makes her happy? She doesn’t say.

Subjective happiness is sweet, but would we choose it if it was based on delusion? Political philosopher Robert Nozick asks  whether there is more to life than being happy. Here is a thought-experiment he proposes: You can climb into a sophisticated “Experience Machine” invented by neuroscientists, engineers, psychologists, etc. You sit there with electrodes affixed to your head and experience writing a great novel, making a great friend, finding a great love, or anything else that tickles your fancy. You are perfectly happy. And perfectly isolated. In actuality, doing nothing. But thinking you are involved, connected, engaged. Would you choose this sort of happiness?

What is happiness? Sources differ. Aristotle’s view, according to one summary, holds that happiness is “the rational soul’s activity of virtue in a complete life.” Aristotle thought happiness could be evaluated only objectively, that it was something visible only from the outside. Bok contends that happiness requires both subjective and objective perspectives. Can a person who happily believes himself to be Napoleon, be happy? (But mildly delusional self-aggrandizement may signal mental health.) Other views contend that happiness grows out of being in possession of “virtue” or, in the view of philosopher John Rawls, of “a rational life plan.” Both seem to Bok (and to me) a bit narrow.

Bok lays out two approaches that frame numerous opinions on the nature of happiness. The first is the parsimonious one, the Roman Stoic Seneca’s, who taught that happiness comes from limiting one’s desires. The second is the expansive one, the 19th-century French so­cialist Charles Fourier’s view that happiness “con­sists in having many passions and many means of satisfying them.”

Is happiness possible without morality? Can a man be said to be happy who, on a daily basis, commits massive fraud—the investment swindler Bernard Madoff for instance? What about hit men, rapists, scammers, persons who bilk elders? Is the idea of a happy torturer oxymoronic? Is empathy a prerequisite for happiness? Can horribleness harmonize with happiness? Or does being horrible result from unhappiness?

On a more mundane level, should happiness be divorced from everyday ethical conduct? In seeking happiness, should we seek to avoid blowing the whistle on witnessed corruption or cruelty, since the resulting fallout could lead to unhappy consequences for ourselves? Which is more important, happiness or truth? Bok asks, “How should I weigh my own happiness against that of others?” And, she asks, “At what cost to others is it permissible to pursue my own happiness or that of my family or community—say when it comes to energy usage or the environment?” She notes that many authors offering advice on happiness omit such questions and some even consider people “troubled about moral conflicts and personal responsibilities as ‘neurotic’ or as ‘ruminators.’”

Happiness is complicated. And Bok elaborates its complications through labyrinthine pathways. Are geniuses more melancholy than nongeniuses, as was once believed? (The short answer: no.) Are extroverts happier than introverts, or, to put it another way, can a hermit be happy? (I’m happy to report that Bok gives credence to solitude and silence.) A particularly moving chapter compares Sigmund Freud and Bertrand Russell, who both wrote extensively, and oppositely, on happiness. Each composed his tome on happiness while severely depressed and each published his book in 1930. Civilization and Its Discontents and The Conquest of Happiness “continue to enjoy an enthusiastic readership, regardless of the lethal blows that critics have aimed at each one.” Notwithstanding Freud’s pessimism versus Russell’s belief in the possibility of individual happiness, each man believed that psychological health required both love and meaningful work.

Social science and neuroscience have a number of things to say about happiness. We have those mirror neurons: If I see you happy, I will become happy. Kindness makes the kind person happier. Altruism gives the altruistic person a greater sense of “subjective well-being”; it also lights up the brain’s reward systems. Wealth helps, but there are happy homeless people. Commuting, according to some of the increasingly sophisticated surveys, makes people unhappy. Less obvious: To be older is to be happier (so much for youth culture).

There’s a correlation between being married and being happy, but Bok questions the meaning of this. Will marriage make you happier? Or are happy people more likely to get married? The same conundrum applies to health and happiness.

Bok affirms that happiness correlates with creativity. And with the flow of serotonin and other neurotransmitters involved in the brain’s reward system. Humor enhances happiness. Curiosity creates happiness. There is that “set point” wherein some folks are born happy and some are born with the blues. But set points have been questioned, and identical-twin studies should in any case be salted with the information that genes are not fixed but affected by the environment; identical twins are not quite identical.

So, how do we strive for more happiness? One way is to keep our minds open to contrasting ideas and approaches. Avoid “tunnel vision,” Bok says, “premature closure” that insists on this or that single way to happiness, with all alternate roads leading to hell.

Developing a greater capacity to feel gratitude, Bok thinks, can facilitate an increase in happiness in virtually anyone. Why? Because “it must be learned and practiced, since it requires an awareness of others and depends on thinking and attention.” But Bok is never content with pat solutions or with solutions that ignore moral considerations. Consider what Socrates was grateful for: “That he was born a human being, not an animal; a man, not a woman; and a Greek, not a barbarian.”

Exploring Happiness is an intellectual feast. Its pleasures include glimpses of the lives and views of such figures as the Stoic Seneca, who served and then quit the service of the evil emperor Nero, hoping but ultimately failing to escape with his life. Or Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit priest and scientist who felt that a zest for life along with a spiritual disposition came with an unsought collateral compensation—happiness. Bok’s book brings together Western thinking about happiness across time and geography. It is an invitation to turn to personal writing and reflection and to past thinkers from Goethe to the Swedish feminist Ellen Key, who thought that happiness was the process of developing our capabilities. Exploring Happiness explores not only happiness but the question of how we should live our lives.

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