Ode to joy: what makes us happy?

Author:Long, Priscilla
Position::Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science - Book review


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...

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