Exploring Happiness

Is happiness the point? If so, why not put Prozac in the public water supply? Many people achieve the same effect with drink, drugs, and either the brainwashed or the cherry-picked-for-convenience versions of religion. A better answer might lie in the choice made by some when asked, “Which would you rather be: a happy pig, or an unhappy Socrates?”

To start thinking about happiness properly, read Sissela Bok’s lucid, careful and illuminating discussion of it in Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science. She surveys many views and definitions from classical antiquity to current “happiness studies” using brain-scanning techniques. Among the chief conclusions she draws is that happiness is such a various and layered thing that all approaches to it, from autobiography and ancient philosophy to neuropsychology, are relevant and mutually informative, and have to be adopted together. Her book is an eloquent demonstration of this interdisciplinary approach, which is alone capable of doing justice to the differences and the intersections of both the subjective stance—the phenomenology of happiness as felt experience—and the objective stance of scientific measurement and test.

It also confirms for me what I have always thought about the big concepts—Happiness, Beauty, Truth, Knowledge, Goodness—which is that in investigating them we should not use those words themselves, but paraphrases that are richer, more specific, and therefore more informative. They are big baggy words because they denote big baggy concepts, and Bok shows just how over-capacious and therefore internally heterogeneous the concept of happiness is.

This emerges from what she describes as the “daunting multitude of reflections, analyses and flights of the imagination, of experience of happiness and of happiness only longed for” that one encounters on examining the literature. All these perspectives and views deserve a place in the discussion because they all have something to offer. But if the need for a synoptic approach is one of Bok’s main themes, another equally important one is that there are limits to the meaning of happiness imposed by “perennial moral issues about how we should lead our lives and how we should treat one another.”

For example: if one accepted Willa Cather’s definition of happiness as the state of “being dissolved into something complete and great,” then the 9/11 mass murderers were happy. But not only is there serious reason to doubt that true happiness is consistent with doing harm, but one has to remember Jonathan Swift’s scathing remark that happiness is nothing other than “being well deceived; the serene peaceful state of being a fool among knaves.” In the case of those imagining rewards in an afterlife for crimes in this life, one is tempted to give Swift’s view one’s vote.

There is certainly a Babel of voices on the subject of happiness, and a wide range of approaches, some from diametrically opposite sides of the field. Look at how Aristotle and the Stoics clashed over both ends and means: Aristotle thought that happiness is achieved by increasing the satisfaction of appropriate desires, while the later Stoics recommended limiting desires. More than two millennia later, Bertrand Russell and Sigmund Freud adopted very similar respective positions, the former thinking that a more expansive approach to life is the route to happiness, the latter doubting whether happiness of anything more than a transitory kind is possible. Schopenhauer thought only brutes are capable of happiness, because they live in the moment, whereas humans are condemned to suffering by living in time, plagued by regrets about the past and anxieties about the future.

There are those who think self-forgetfulness is the mark of happiness (thus Iris Murdoch), and a variety of others who think that creativity, or unthinking religious faith, or the exhilarations of love, are its source. Empirical research in more recent times indicates that a degree of wealth and material comfort promotes happiness, but only up to a point; after surplus has been achieved the returns are diminishing ones. But similar studies cited by Bok show that successful relationships are a consistent correlative of happiness—which is hardly surprising, but the social sciences are good at confirming what we already know.

What the psychologists call “resilience” is cited as one essential ingredient; those haunted by memories of traumatic events are being insufficiently resilient in coping with them. But then one asks: is this a hidden request for indifference or obtuseness? Bok quotes William James: “happiness, like every other emotional state, has blindness and insensibility as opposing facts given it as its instinctive weapon for self-protection against disturbance.” Obviously enough, too much resilience is morally undesirable.