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In Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living from Plato to Prozac
     

In Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living from Plato to Prozac

by Mark Kingwell, Doug Pepper (Editor)
 
We all think that we know what happiness is, or at least that we would like more of it. But the pursuit of this rather abstract commodity may be at once the simplest and the most vexing of human endeavors. In Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living from Plato to Prozac is an exploration of the idea of happiness, the ways in which that idea has changed over the

Overview

We all think that we know what happiness is, or at least that we would like more of it. But the pursuit of this rather abstract commodity may be at once the simplest and the most vexing of human endeavors. In Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living from Plato to Prozac is an exploration of the idea of happiness, the ways in which that idea has changed over the course of history, and how it influences not only individual lives, but also economic and political thinking, psychological investigation, medical practice — in fact all facets of human life.

Featuring Mark Kingwell's unique combination of cultural reportage, historical investigation, and philosophical reflection, In Pursuit of Happiness excavates layers of manipulation to seek out a happiness uncontaminated by technology, advertising, and popular culture. From a meditation on the relevance of Platonic ideas about happiness to a running commentary on the author's week at a "happy camp" in Massachusetts, this is an utterly absorbing and often hilarious exploration of just what it is that makes life worth living.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Smoothly splicing together personal narrative, philosophical inquiry and historical analysis, young Canadian academic and frequent Harper's contributor Kingwell (Dreams of Millennium) deconstructs popular conceptions of happiness and presents an invigorating alternative vision of the good life in this witty and incisive cultural critique. Kicking off his personal pursuit of felicity with a week-long stint at a happiness seminar in western Massachusetts, Kingwell plays guinea pig in a caustic examination of the self-realization industry. In another amateur experiment, he locates a month's supply of Prozac--he is not depressed, and the drug has not been prescribed--and doses himself, investigating the pharmaceutical approach to happiness. Though these two episodes make for amusing storytelling, the insight they yield is slight. It is Kingwell's more abstract reasoning on consumer culture--in selling happiness, advertising actually manufactures unhappiness; in urging self-affirmation, therapeutic programs push empty solutions--that succeeds best. Looking to Plato's The Republic, Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy and Epictetus's Enchiridion for inspiration from the longest-lived happiness manuals, Kingwell, like the ancients, finally concludes that happiness is not a life of hedonistic abandon but rather one of eudaemonistic fulfillment: "the possession of virtuous character and the performance of virtuous action." Grandiose as this may sound, Kingwell wears his learning lightly, and his spirited defense of the life worth living is marred only by an occasional smugness of tone. Riding a wave of Jerome Kern lyrics, rehashed personal gossip and analysis of the movie Shall We Dance, he coasts home on the story of his own struggle for happiness as a junior scholar angling for tenure. (July) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
In keeping with a number of books that have appeared recently, including Lou Marinoff's Plato, Not Prozac! (HarperCollins, 1999), Kingwell (philosophy, Univ. of Toronto) here uses philosophical methods to examine the fundamental underpinning of human endeavors: the idea of happiness. In this fascinating and superbly written book, Kingwell delves into how happiness, with all its variant definitions, is an element in every part of our lives. His introductory analysis of the concept of happiness, even as defined in current popular music, provides an excellent grounding for his later discussion. He takes particular note of eight myths that surround happiness, including the myth that it can be bought, that it is immoral, and that it is a birthright. Combining his own personal experiences, investigation into historical views of happiness, and, of course, some good, solid philosophical analysis and reflection, Kingwell has created a book of a type that we desperately need: intelligently and thoughtfully written, with a sound basis in philosophical method, on an important yet often poorly examined topic, and with a worthy goal. Recommended for all libraries.--Terry Skeats, Bishop's Univ. Lib., Lennoxville, Quebec Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
GraceAnne A. DeCandido
...[Kingwell]'s spent a lot of time trying to elucidate a concept all of us talk about but few take the time to think about clearly.
Booklist
Kirkus Reviews
An examination of our various definitions of happiness, written by philosopher Kingwell (Dreams of Millennium, 1997) with erudition and wit. Kingwell's formidable task is to take on the topic of happiness, avoid the usual grandiose or sentimental approaches, and transcend (without avoiding) the efforts of Madison Avenue, the feel-good gurus and therapists, and the A to Z of happiness products (alcohol to Zoloft). There are several prongs to his attack. He recaps several millennia of philosophical inquiry on the subject (Aristotle to George Burns) in his description of a weekend at a Maslov-inspired, Esalen Institute-type retreat. There he contemplates happiness amid the group's exploration of feelings, their generous bear hugs, and their attempts at self-actualization. Kingwell remains an aloof, slightly cynical academic among these "near-suicidal depressives and possible schizophrenics": he even tries Prozac and St. John's Wort, but he gets no dopamine rush and notices no change whatsoever beyond the usual tedious side-effects. There are some dense passages of philosophy (from Solon or Boethius) included in Kingwell's musings, but he also finds time to consider why Star Trek's utopianism makes us feel good and to compare the relative virtues of overweight comedians (from The Honeymooners, Roseanne, The Drew Carey Show, and The Simpsons). These large Americans, Kingwell claims, represent our consumer culture's satisfaction of appetites—the low road to happiness. Kingwell's high road involves the virtue theory of happiness, pleasures more anticipated and remembered, our Founding Fathers' property-based pursuit of happiness, and the wordsofVoltaire ("we must cultivate our garden"). The ample bibliography and index attest to Kingwell's wide learning, while the easy mix of popular culture and academic philosophy reflects well on his formidable writing skills.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780609605356
Publisher:
Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
07/05/2000
Edition description:
1 AMER ED
Pages:
416
Product dimensions:
6.52(w) x 9.59(h) x 1.29(d)

Read an Excerpt

We all know that some books work like ingenious traps. They begin innocuously, articulating a few genial sentiments or unobjectionable home truths designed to lure you down the false path of a deceptive familiarity. You stride ahead without fear. By subtle steps, each plotted with argument or example or statistic, you are moved closer to the place where artfully strewn leaves cover a hole in the ground. You know very well what is coming, or anyway suspect it, but at some point -- if the author is any good -- you fall, on cue, into conviction. Aha! You now think what the author thinks.

Maybe you're happy to find yourself there, and make yourself comfortable. Maybe you're feisty and seethe from your ignoble position in the trap, scanning memory and logic and the rest of the mental horizon for a means of escape. Either way, the trap affords complicated forms of pleasure. As trapping games go, there are not many better or more interesting than walking through a good book of argument.

Not all books, however -- not even all books of argument, which this one surely is -- seek to ensnare the reader in the author's own convictions. I knew when I set out to write a book about happiness that I faced a choice between setting a trap in the traditional philosophical manner, ascending to the high ground of objective detachment to observe the results, and doing something quite different: beginning an intimate conversation with one reader at a time. Books on deep and difficult topics can trumpet and they can whisper; they can declaim and they can hint. But for me, they work best when they just talk, in a manner as close as possible to the true voice of their author.

Thedifference is vividly illustrated by the enduring disputes, in manner and conclusion, between two claimants for the title of the first truly modern philosopher. On the one hand there is the generally acknowledged winner, René Descartes, whose brilliantly clear mathematical mind bent itself, with great success, to the task of achieving certainty by way of method. Descartes was a great doubter, as his celebrated contemplation of balls of wax, other people, and his own hand in the Meditations on First Philosophy amply show; but his doubt is only instrumental, used in the service of foundational truths. Descartes never really lacks certainty about where he is going. And, because he is both a great thinker and a great writer, we follow him there.

On the other hand is the unjustly neglected figure of Michel de Montaigne, the liberal essayist and skeptic whose personal motto, inscribed on a medal, was "Que sais-je?" -- What do I know? Humane and literate, sometimes loose and rambling, but always charming and wise, Montaigne is never sure and he is never finished. Where Descartes finds positive proof and solid answers, Montaigne finds only variable experience and further questions. One favors treatises full of cold reasoning, the other personal essays full of warm intimation. Cartesian certainty, with its bedrock logic and stepwise proof, has built much of the modern world: its precise biaxial geometry is inscribed on every edifice and every trajectory of our experience. It is a remarkable, epoch-making achievement. But we would do well to attend, now and then, to the spirit of tolerance and open-minded inquiry to be found in Montaigne.

I try to write here in the other modern voice, then, the voice of the essayist -- who is the one who tries, as the French essai reminds us. Though I certainly lack the rich gifts and hard-won experience of Montaigne, I have nevertheless striven for the conversational tone and playful, tangential style of argument he teaches us.

That is one reason you will find here what you might not expect in a book by a professional philosopher: details of my personal life, stories about challenges in career and marriage and friendship, jokes and anecdotes hopefully offered to enhance the pleasure of the text. I regard this book as my side of a conversation, a series of gambits and questions and, now and then, tentative answers about the tricky subject of happiness. If at times I break off and lecture for a while (as I have been known to do now and then at the dinner table), or tell you a little more than you thought you wanted to know about me -- well, take that as your cue to step in and say something.

The choice of style for this book was born of something greater than mere personal preference, however. There is something about the subject of happiness, with its much-scored surface of confusion and vagueness, its crisscrossings of argument and counter-argument, that tends to produce writing either pompous or maudlin. I could not bear, in my regard both for myself and for the reader, to descend into either. Nor could I, in good conscience, pretend to a certainty I did not actually feel about the subject. It would have been deceptive, indeed irresponsible, to offer definitive answers about happiness when what I mostly felt was the power of the questions. Besides, reviewers of the book were sure to have all the definitive answers anyway, and who was I to steal their thunder?

If, like them, you already know everything there is to know about happiness, you have no need of this book. If you think there are simple formulas for happiness, in whatever form, then you need it but will have no wish for it. But if, instead, you want, as I did, simply to think about happiness, to probe it and ponder it in a spirit of humane and humorous inquiry -- to investigate happiness philosophically, in the best sense of that much abused word -- then welcome to In Pursuit of Happiness. And, I hope, better living.

Human life is about telling stories, about shaping a life's narrative out of the raw materials of experience and aspiration and contingency, and you will find a number of stories here. In that sense, this book functions at once as an argument about the importance of narrative and as an illustration of that importance. I could not have written about happiness without the tales that weave themselves through the pages that follow. No doubt the stories are as false as they are true, in the way that stories have of concealing even as they reveal -- and therefore revealing, in turn, things I did not consciously intend.

My own story has advanced a little since this book was first published. In a turn of events too complicated to set out in detail (mostly involving that unfortunately common motive force, a job offer from another institution), the University of Toronto granted me tenure in the spring of 1998, just after In Pursuit of Happiness first appeared. That is relevant because I end this book with a discussion of my struggle with the challenge of imminent unemployment and exit from the academic world. This story was told not to elicit sympathy or to settle scores, as some have charged, but instead to address as honestly as possible the shape of a particular kind of unhappiness, one where a desire had stolen inside me without warning and had come to dominate my sense of my life and my self. Writing this book was my way of examining and transforming that desire, and I had no reason, while doing so, to expect things would change for the better; to my delight and surprise they did. The analysis of the desire itself remains, and I remain as troubled as ever about the way we are all subject to the power of self-imposed expectations to make us miserable.

This change in my professional status does not alter the views I express in these pages or what I have said elsewhere about the current state of academic scholarship. It does lift a huge weight from my shoulders, and makes me feel both very lucky and very happy. One of the ironies of happiness is that, just as your mother and mine used to say, sometimes you get what you want just as soon as you stop wishing for it. The rumors that my academic colleagues only gave me a permanent job so that I would finally shut up about them, or the theory that the surest way to tenure is to argue for its abolition on television, do not, so far as I know, have any basis in fact. Nor is it the case, as some people have suggested, that all tenured professors are like the tiny marine creature known as the sea squirt, whose unique evolutionary strategy involves finding a suitable home to attach itself to, at which point, finding the organ no longer necessary for survival, it consumes its own brain as food.

The particular challenge of finding the work I wanted has passed, at least for the moment. My task now is to make the most of the privilege of being paid to think and teach and write. Of course there will be other challenges to come, for my story is not yet done. True happiness, if it means anything, means having the strength of character to meet them when they arrive.

That is the one conviction of this book that I want you to come to share. So, let me tell you a story . . .

Meet the Author

MARK KINGWELL writes for Harper's magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Utne Reader, Shift, and several other publications. An associate professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, he is the author of three other books, including Dreams of Millennium. He lives in Toronto.

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