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Exploring Happiness

Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science

Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Exploring Happiness
    Book Description:

    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 Happinessshines a welcome new light on the heart of the human condition.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16843-3
    Subjects: Sociology, Biological Sciences, Philosophy, Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. I LUCK
    (pp. 1-10)

    The mind reels at the thought of the infinitesimal chances that any one of us had of being born, able to relish even the slightest glimmer of happiness. In my own case, I can pinpoint one of the myriad moments when all such chances would have been eliminated for good. It occurred four years before I was born. Were it not for my young mother’s newfangled ideas about happiness, I would never have seen the light of day.

    My mother, Alva Myrdal, had come close to death after a traumatic miscarriage, then developed a large uterine tumor. Her doctors had...

    (pp. 11-34)

    Bliss,joy, elation, contentment, pleasure, euphoria, happiness, ecstasy: how people describe their experience of these states of mind is so much more vivid than efforts to define or explain them.We need little imagination to enter into the state of mind that Rousseau conveys; or to share, almost viscerally, Frederick Douglass’s burst of exultation at finding himself beyond the limits of slavery.

    We couldn’t even begin to respond to such accounts, however, unless we were able to recall experiences of happiness in our own lives. The recall can be near instantaneous. I have found that when people ask what my book is...

    (pp. 35-58)

    In writing about happiness and the role it plays in human lives, Alexander Pope surveyed texts by philosophers, poets, theologians, and scientists from earliest times. His long poem on the human condition was widely read and debated throughout the eighteenth century.* Pope made a crucial distinction: we see happiness both “so near us, yet beyond us.” We know the experience intimately; yet the effort to agree on how to encompass it, fathom its scope, delimit it in words, seems out of our reach. Individuals the world over do have an immediate understanding of happiness – their own and that of...

    (pp. 59-82)

    Seneca never ceased invoking the Stoic view that happiness required a simple, pared-down way of life in pursuit of wisdom and virtue. But as one who had accumulated great power and immense wealth in the service of the Roman Emperor Nero, he knew full well the criticisms of his opulent way of life.² “Yes, you claim to follow the Stoics. But how could you in all seriousness maintain, as they did, that virtue is all one needs to feel permanently happy? You, who have amassed such fortunes, first through marriage, then while holding public office in Rome? Who served as...

    (pp. 83-106)

    Many people might well agree with Aristotle’s caution against excessive specificity when it comes to assertions that happiness can be measured, treated in quantitative terms, dealt with by numbers and indices. Anyone claiming to have measured happiness is in for a series of questions. What measurements could possibly encompass the depth and scope of conceptions of happiness? By what quantitative standards can one person’s happiness be compared to another’s? What numbers make sense in comparing even one person’s different experiences from day to day or year to year? And by what indices can such personal experiences be established by outsiders?...

    (pp. 107-131)

    Modern scientists have worked out in considerable detail a hypothesis that William James already called highly likely: that temperament is “organically weighted” on the side of cheer or misery, bringing utterly different perspectives bear on the experience of happiness, how to define it, and whether it is even achievable.¹ He contrasted the “sanguine and healthy-minded” to the “depressed and melancholy.” Happiness researchers often distinguish between “extroverts” and “neurotics,” finding the former more outgoing, sociable, and likely to experience positive emotions than the latter, who experience negative emotions such as worry, fear, or sadness more frequently.² Both clusters of traits are...

    (pp. 132-154)

    In books published the same year, Sigmund Freud and Bertrand Russell drew on personal observation and at times flamboyant speculation to offer diametrically opposed conclusions about human chances for happiness. The two works appeal to different audiences and are rarely if ever read together. But it is worth revisiting them together, with a special focus on their claims about happiness. To what degree might their authors have been influenced by their own personal circumstances and by their personalities? And how might we look at their conclusions in the light of current thinking on happiness?

    Both men were quick to belittle...

    (pp. 155-172)

    It is natural, given the vast consequences that adopting one view of happiness rather than another can have for individual lives and for institutions, that some should wish to single out what constitutes “true” or “real” happiness. For many in politics or religion it comes to matter utterly to believe that one view of happiness is the only correct one and to warn against the snares and delusions of those who peddle different perceptions.

    Few proposals for how to attain true or real happiness fail to target competing beliefs as illusory, blind to true reality, often intended to lead the...

    (pp. 173-178)

    Anyone setting out to explore what we can learn about the role of happiness in human lives encounters a daunting multitude of reflections, analyses, and flights of the imagination, of experiences of happiness and of happiness only longed for. They convey the subject’s remarkable scope, in two senses of that term: extent, range, reach, sweep of perceptions, thoughts, or actions; and freedom, latitude, and leeway.¹ I see both meanings as relating to each of my two aims in this book: that of bringing together writing and thinking about happiness by philosophers, poets, religious thinkers, and others with research by natural...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 179-202)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 203-216)
    (pp. 217-218)