Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science

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Overview

In this smart and timely book, the distinguished moral philosopher Sissela Bok ponders the nature of happiness and its place in philosophical thinking and writing throughout the ages. With nuance and elegance, Bok explores notions of happiness—from Greek philosophers to Desmond Tutu, Charles Darwin, Iris Murdoch, and the Dalai Lama—as well as the latest theories advanced by psychologists, economists, geneticists, and neuroscientists. Eschewing abstract theorizing, Bok weaves in a wealth of firsthand observations about happiness from ordinary people as well as renowned figures. This may well be the most complete picture of happiness yet.

This book is also a clarion call to think clearly and sensitively about happiness. Bringing together very different disciplines provides Bok with a unique opportunity to consider the role of happiness in wider questions of how we should lead our lives and treat one another—concerns that don’t often figure in today’s happiness equation. How should we pursue, weigh, value, or limit our own happiness, or that of others, now and in the future? Compelling and perceptive, Exploring Happiness shines a welcome new light on the heart of the human condition.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
For as long as human beings have been capable of articulating needs beyond basic survival, one subject has occupied their thoughts perhaps more than any other: happiness. How do we achieve it? How do we maintain it? If it springs from deception (of self or others), as has been suggested, is it any less valid? Thinkers great and small have wrestled with questions such as these for millennia. Bok seeks to synthesize differing opinion and explore the many views on happiness-from philosophers to neuroscientists-and organizes her findings around themes such as luck, illusion, and transience. Happiness is such a subjective concept that it's difficult to imagine an author managing to even touch on it, let alone offer a comprehensive survey. Still, Bok culls a careful collection of thoughts into a surprisingly dense philosophical examination, chronicling what great thinkers have had to say about the subject. Though the title may suggest something from the self-help shelf, this is indeed an exploration, not a guide; readers who want help getting happy should look elsewhere.
Notre Dame Philosophical Review

“Very smart, sensitive, and thought-provoking. . . . This thoughtful, beautifully written book makes one feel one is present, conversing with the very best minds of the last 2500 years on one of the few philosophical problems that is of universal importance.”—Owen Flanagan, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

— Owen Flanagan

The Christian Century

"Sissela Bok offers a clear and engaging historical tour though dozens of competing philosophical renderings of happiness over the ages."—Timothy Renick, The Christian Century

— Timothy Renick

The American Scholar

"Happiness is complicated. And Bok elaborates its complications through labyrinthine pathways. . . . Exploring Happiness is an intellectual feast. . . . It is an invitation to turn to personal writing and reflection and to past thinkers from Goethe to 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."—Priscilla Long, The American Scholar

— Priscilla Long

Richard Sennett
"Sissela Bok makes sense of happiness for adults: what sort of happiness we can seek, and what lies beyond our grasp. The book illuminates 'the pursuit of happiness' in modern economics, psychiatry, and philosophy, but she addresses, in the end, any intelligent reader. Sissela Bok writes so clearly and directly that the reader is often caught up short, suddenly realizing that her arguments are always provocations to think more deeply. This is a wise book."—Richard Sennett
Walter Isaacson
"What causes true happiness? From ancient philosophers to contemporary neuroscientists — as well as any of us searching for how to lead a good life — people have grappled with that most profound of all simple questions. Sissela Bok weaves together the different conceptions of happiness to create a shimmering and subtle tapestry. This book will take you a step closer to happiness by helping you understand the idea better."—Walter Isaacson, President and CEO, the Aspen Institute
Barbara Goldsmith
"A profound, erudite, and lucid exploration integrating a vast array of sources - personal, philosophical, historical, scientific and spiritual - that cohere to illuminate this elusive subject."—Barbara Goldsmith
Notre Dame Philosophical Review - Owen Flanagan
“Very smart, sensitive, and thought-provoking. . . . This thoughtful, beautifully written book makes one feel one is present, conversing with the very best minds of the last 2500 years on one of the few philosophical problems that is of universal importance.”—Owen Flanagan, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
The Christian Century - Timothy Renick
"Sissela Bok offers a clear and engaging historical tour though dozens of competing philosophical renderings of happiness over the ages."—Timothy Renick, The Christian Century
The American Scholar - Priscilla Long
"Happiness is complicated. And Bok elaborates its complications through labyrinthine pathways. . . . Exploring Happiness is an intellectual feast. . . . It is an invitation to turn to personal writing and reflection and to past thinkers from Goethe to 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."—Priscilla Long, The American Scholar
Philosophical Practice - Kathryn Russell
"[Bok] sets up a fascinating dialogue between insights from the history of philosophy and recent work in the social and natural sciences. . . . It will be a treasure for the philosophical counselor: in the classroom, for background reading and for work with clients. . . . authoritative, engagingly written, and thorough."—Kathryn Russell, Philosophical Practice
Choice - Choice Outstanding Academic Title: Philosophy
Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2011 in the Philosophy category.
The Pharos - Stephen G. Post
“Bok’s best ever . . . [and] the best example of integrative scholarship on happiness to date. . . . Both the philosophy and the science are presented in a way that most lay readers will easily handle, and in her skillful, almost pastoral, style, Bok is able to make all this relevant to the lay reader on an existential level. It is possible to read this book and be transformed.”—Stephen G. Post, The Pharos
Wall Street Journal
"It is hard to imagine how anyone else, in fewer than 200 pages of text, could better encompass so much Western thinking about a question so important to the way we live."—Wall Street Journal
Wall Street Journal

"It is hard to imagine how anyone else, in fewer than 200 pages of text, could better encompass so much Western thinking about a question so important to the way we live."--Wall Street Journal

Wall Street Journal

"It is hard to imagine how anyone else, in fewer than 200 pages of text, could better encompass so much Western thinking about a question so important to the way we live."—Wall Street Journal

Library Journal
In this wide-ranging study, Bok (senior visiting fellow, Harvard Ctr. for Population & Development Studies: Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life) endeavors to survey happiness from a variety of perspectives rather than to advance an overarching thesis about it. A well-known moral philosopher, she discusses experiences of people who have described being happy, reflections of philosophers about happiness, and experimental results of brain scientists and psychologists who have studied happiness. She often talks about Robert Nozick's posited Experience Machine, a device programmed to give us any experiences we want. Like Nozick, she thinks that experience—the "inside" dimension of life—is by itself inadequate. Among the scientific investigations that interest Bok are attempts to measure happiness and studies of the "hedonic treadmill," i.e., the tendency to keep one's level of happiness constant while responding only briefly to the ups and downs of life. Bok argues that the pursuit of happiness should not be all consuming. People need to limit the search for happiness by moral constraints. Like Kant, she places particular emphasis on truthfulness. VERDICT Bok's fluently written book is an outstanding guide to a topic sure to interest the general reader as well as specialists in philosophy, psychology, and brain science.—David Gordon, Bowling Green State Univ., OH
The Barnes & Noble Review

From A. C. Grayling's "THE THINKING READ" column on The Barnes & Noble Review


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.

Is it acceptable to be happy on the basis of illusions -- say, religious beliefs, or false information about one's situation? It is indeed not only possible for people to be blissful because of belief in falsehoods, but this is a surer route to bliss than knowledge of the truth. Is truth so valuable that it should trump comforting illusion? The question is all too pressing, and Bok discusses it, quoting Horace's story of Lycas who applauded and laughed in an empty theatre because he imagined scenes being played there. Throughout history the example of Lycas has been invoked on both sides of the question, pitted against Socrates's dictum that "the unconsidered life is not worth living." Alexander Pope was on Lycas's side, but Bok cites Confucius, the Buddha, Montaigne, Voltaire, Diderot, Kant, and others as firmly of the view that because self-knowledge is crucial to maturity, it was right that the doctors "purged and cupped" him (Pope's words). Were they right to intervene between Lycas and his illusions? I am with Bok and Kant in thinking that they were.

Bok wisely cautions against the move now under way to give too little weight to subjectivity in "happiness studies." Objective measurement and observation is the norm in scientific investigation, quite rightly so, and the fantastic window into the mind afforded by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain is a cornucopia of new insights.

But in the investigation of psychological states by objective and testable techniques of measurement, there is a stubborn reality: the existence of "unquantifiables," which by definition are not amenable to the measuring ambitions of empirical enquiry." Few of the experiences of happiness that are conveyed in autobiographical writings and literature can be fully measured by psychological or neuroscientific research," Bok points out. "Nor can most of the philosophical and religious claims about the nature of happiness or about the role it plays in human lives. Must such issues, then, be thought of as lying beyond the purview of what has come to be called 'the science of happiness'?" Her answer is No: once again, both kinds of perspective are necessary, because only then will we begin to answer questions about whether temperament determines happiness, genius must be melancholy, solitude or its opposite are necessary for it, and much besides. As an elegantly clear overview of the subject, Bok's book is not only a great starting point for further study, but provides a salutary reminder that looking at happiness from only one viewpoint is going to miss a great deal. Every white coat in the scanner lab, in short, should have Aristotle and Seneca in its pockets.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300139297
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 8/24/2010
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Sissela Bok is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, and a moral philosopher of international renown. A former member of the Pulitzer Prize Board, Bok is a Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and sits on the editorial boards of the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, Common Knowledge, and Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. Her many books include the seminal Lying, Secrets, A Strategy for Peace, Mayhem, and Common Values. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Table of Contents

I Luck 1

II Experience 11

III Discordant Definitions 35

IV "On the Happy Life" 59

V Measurement 83

VI Beyond Temperament 107

VII Is Lasting Happiness Achievable? 132

VIII Illusion 155

IX The Scope of Happiness 173

Notes 179

Index 203

Acknowledgments 217

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